When Dionne Randolph was a child, being the only kid on the playground with a deep, deep voice guaranteed him taunts and grief.
But that former hardship has become one of his greatest assets as an adult.
Now a professional actor, Randolph will appear as the leonine Mufasa in the touring national production of "The Lion King," when it arrives at the Orange County Performing Arts Center next week.
"My voice dropped so early; I remember in elementary school I was made fun of for it. Now it's paying off," Randolph said.
Although it's based on the Disney animated film, this "Lion King" musical is full of symbolism and meaning, Randolph said. Created by the legendary director and visionary, Julie Taymor, it's been a Broadway powerhouse since its 1997 premiere.
"A group from my local gym just came to see the show. They said, 'We had no idea the show was like this.' The African influence is much more prevalent, primarily South African. The show is more of a representation of the movie. You have to use your imagination," Randolph said.
"After all these years, this is still the most unique play out there. [Taymor] wants the audience to know that they are mentally involved in what they are going to see. When the sun rises at the beginning, you see that it's actually hundreds of metallic strips. You immediately know that this is something different. Everything is a representation, rather than realistic."
The flight of fancy extends to the characters, who are exclusively animal. Rather than the exclusive use of puppetry or Cowardly Lion-style costumes, the show's designers opted for masks and other symbolic ensembles.
Randolph's character, Mufasa, is the stately and commanding king of the animals. In his role, Randolph must bring humanity into the character while hinting at the untamed ferocity of the animal.
"The costume itself already dictates about 60% of the animal, so the subtle movement of the actor is what brings it over the top," Randolph said, adding that the actors are trained in Balinese movements to develop grace.
"Subtle, random movements create that dual human/animal thing," he said.
Randolph's association with the story of a lion cub who "just can't wait to be king" is more than a decade long, but his start in college was in musical flora rather than fauna.
"The first acting role I ever did was 'Little Shop of Horrors,' when I was maybe 19 or 20," Randolph said. He played Audrey II, the man-eating plant with the booming bass.
"From college I went on an internship to Disney World in Florida in 1994," Randolph said.
He became involved with their stage productions, and found himself as one of the puppet operators in the park's Legend of the Lion King show — the first live-action "Lion King" show anywhere, he said.
"I just remember saying, 'If this ever goes to Broadway, I want to be involved in it in some way,'" Randolph said.
The Legend show was quite different from the subsequent musical; it solely featured puppets with pre-recorded voiceovers, Randolph said. But the seed of a dream was planted.
"I auditioned for 'The Lion King' show six times. I knew they liked me, because I was called back, but I never got the part," he said. "In retrospect, I was a little young to play Mufasa — I was in my early 20s. Finally, my sixth time at the audition, I read for Banzai the hyena. It turns out they wanted to see how high or low I could go."
He joined the cast as Mufasa's understudy in 2003, and soon moved to playing Mufasa nightly.
The man who previously thrived on one-year contracts soon found himself attached at the hip to Taymor's creation.
"I've never done a show this long," he said. "But a show like this is so original that it's never the same show twice. There's not that much set in stone, other than 'You need to be on the rock at this point.' Every night feels a little different."
Playing the same role night after night can wear on any actor, Randolph said; his solution is to get completely into character before stepping onstage.
"I'm a completely different person backstage. Mufasa for me lives onstage. Dionne Randolph lives offstage. I use 100% of my energy onstage, as opposed to backstage. You have to be completely committed, because you never know when it's over, especially in this business. I live every moment that way," Randolph said.
"I have never been more proud of a piece. There's still nothing like 'The Lion King.'"
If You Go What: "The Lion King"When: Wednesday to June 13Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa MesaCost: $23.25 and upInformation and tickets: (714) 556-2787 or ocpac.org