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Gainesville native lends voice to Broadways Lion King play
0403Lion-Dionne Randolph
Gainesville native Dionne Randolph wears an animated mask in "The Lion King." - photo by For The Times

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Hear Gainesville native Dionne Randolph, who plays the role of Mufasa in "The Lion King," describe the production’s elaborate costuming.

The voice of Gainesville native Dionne Randolph is deep and stately, kingly even — much like the voice of James Earl Jones, who lent his voice to the role of Mufasa in the 1994 Disney animated film "The Lion King."

Randolph said he never intended to land the role of Mufasa, father of Simba, in the first nationally touring Broadway show "The Lion King," but the Gainesville High School graduate is now rounding out his fifth year with the Gazelle National Tour as it stops for a month-long stint in Atlanta.

The Broadway show will hold 38 performances between today and May 4 at the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center.

Randolph said he has long set his sights on the wonderful world of Disney, but set out for Orlando in 1993 not as an actor but as an engineering intern with Disney’s theme park engineering company Imagineer.

"I actually wanted to be an Imagineer, that’s what brought me to Florida in the first place," Randolph said. "It’s funny how it happened. There was a producer who overheard me speaking, and asked if I would do a voice-over one day for an announcement in the theme park. And I did it, and of course, someone heard that, and someone heard that, and it kept snowballing after that."

Randolph said at that time he had some singing and acting experience from his days in the Gainesville High School drama department under the direction of Pam Ware.

He snagged his first gig associated with "The Lion King" shortly after Disney producers initially discovered his thundering voice.

In 1994, he opened the show "Legend of the Lion King," a puppet show held at Disney World. Then in 1999, he joined the cast of "Festival of the Lion King," a Cirque du Soleil-type production at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Randolph then boarded a cruise ship in 2001 as a singer in a production of "Smokey Joe’s Cafe" for an Asian cruise line. During the two years he was overseas, the "The Lion King" production opened on Broadway.

"Many people had been telling me about the show, and when I came back to the states I immediately went to audition for the show," Randolph said. "And it happened it was a great time to audition for the show ... and I actually got in."

It was Randolph’s first Broadway audition, and he landed one of the leading roles.

"Until then, (acting) was just a hobby, but the funny thing is, it’s what I’ve always loved to do," he said.

Four weeks of whirlwind practices followed, where Randolph learned to sing the songs of the Tony Award-winning play, as well as how to move under the weight of his 50-pound South African king costume. He also learned how to animate the electronically controlled mask puppet attached to his head each show.

The mask allows Randolph to become "animalized" to portray Mufasa’s expressions of aggression, tenderness or laughter.

"I feel like Gumby in this costume, trying to act through a mattress," he said. "(The puppet) sits on my head like a crown. Once you lose your fear of the puppet system and just jump into it, it’s a lot of fun."

Randolph said the original director, Julie Taymor, drew inspiration for the electronic masks atop actors’ heads from South Africans, who balance water vessels and baskets on their heads as they amble through the marketplace.

The scenery of "The Lion King" Broadway production is intentionally scant, Randolph said.

"‘The Lion King’ seems to rely more heavily on the costuming and the actor because the original director wanted the costuming to be humanized," Randolph said. "And one thing you’ll never see in ‘The Lion King’ is fur," he added.

Randolph said one of his personal favorite scenes in the production is the very first, which opens the play with the rousing tune "The Circle of Life."

"There is no theatrical show that opens like this. It gives me goose bumps thinking about it. It’s a great, great opening number," he said.

It takes about 55 onstage cast members and 100 people backstage to bring the story of Simba, Mufasa, Nala and Scar to life each night, Randolph said. Much of the spectacular production can be attributed to lighting coordinators and backstage hands, who are responsible for moving the 25-foot tall Pride Rock, the largest prop of the show, which weighs six tons.

He said some song lyrics contain phrases from African languages, such as Zulu and Xosa. Each of the eight productions of "The Lion King" touring worldwide contains at least seven South Africans in the cast to ensure that African languages and accents incorporated into the production remain authentic.

"People sometimes wonder what we are saying, and it’s Zulu," Randolph said.

"The Lion King" isn’t a show just for kids, he added. There’s Elton John and Tim Rice’s Oscar-winning song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," as well as lessons on life, death, humility and relationships.

"Julie Taymor said she wants the audience to leave with something they didn’t know they needed," Randolph said. "Not too many people leave the theater and didn’t cry. It’s a very moving show."

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