When "The Lion King" opens Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, it will mark a return of the multibillion-dollar global juggernaut to the venue where it first roared to life in 1997.
The Elton John-Tim Rice musical also is a homecoming of sorts for two Twin Cities-connected cast members.
J. Anthony Crane, who plays the antihero Scar in this classic drama about jealousy, murder and paternal love, spent many summers in the Twin Cities, where his parents were born and where his grandfather and great uncle ran a pharmacy and a movie theater.
"I'll be visiting south Minneapolis to see where my family served the community all those years," said Crane, who grew up in California with his doctor father and physical therapist mother and now lives in New York. "This is the place that influenced so many of our dreams."
Nick Cordileone, who plays the wiseacre Timon, grew up in New Hope, Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. His mother and stepfather still live in northeast Minneapolis and he expects a busload of relatives to come see the show.
"From being on Lake Minnetonka to watching the Vikings and the Twins, the Twin Cities formed the building blocks of my brain," said Cordileone. "It is the place where I learned the joy and pain of being a long-suffering sports fan, something that I can use in my character."
The "King" has prospered
"Lion King" was built in Minneapolis by visionary director Julie Taymor. It combined her inventive visuals with bold puppetry, a propulsive pop score and Garth Fagan's choreography to make the Disney movie come to spectacular life. After its sold-out Twin Cities premiere, the show transferred to Broadway in October 1997, where it won six Tonys and has remained a box-office champion.
It has toured the globe from London to Tokyo and Johannesburg, selling more than 60 million tickets and grossing in excess of $4.3 billion, according to reports.
A summer-camp heckler
For Crane and Cordileone, theater came fitfully.
Crane was 11 and in a summer-camp production of the musical "Gypsy" when he had an experience that might have traumatized a performer twice his age.
"I was in the middle of a scene, an ultra-smooth number where I pick up the lead and gently guide her over there, then break to do a tap-dance number I'd just learned," he said recently. "Suddenly, some guy two rows from the front started laughing uncontrollably. It was my first experience with derisive laughter, but I was so exhilarated and full of adrenaline at that point that it was just one of the experiences that I was having. It didn't faze me."
Crane went on to study theater at Northwestern University, where he also soaked in Chicago's famously eclectic arts scene. Later, he headlined shows on the regional-theater circuit. He also starred in "Spamalot" in Las Vegas.
Crane said that he loves playing Scar, not because he likes being evil, but because there's a little bit of Scar in all of us.
"He wants to be king so badly that he's willing to really take advantage of and hurt whoever stands in his way," he said. "It's always fun to play people with extremely strong motivations because you can justify anything. For me, as long as I stay true to what he wants in the show, I satisfy the show's needs."
Still, he is realistic about the part.
"Nobody is going to root for you to succeed," he said. "But I try to step into my character all the way, to be as true to his desires and needs as I can be. Scar is Shakespearean that way; he is very Greek."
A bit of serendipity
Cordileone was about 7 when his family moved from the Twin Cities to Phoenix. He went to Northern Arizona University, a school not known for producing theater stars. Still, he began acting professionally in San Diego, and eventually moved with his wife to New York, where he got roles. Joining the cast of the Tony-winning "Lion King" was a fluke.
A couple of years ago Cordileone was asked by a friend in New York to help with auditions by reading lines with people who came in seeking parts. He unwittingly impressed the casting director.
"My life changed," he said about joining the Broadway tour 18 months ago. "It's the biggest job I've ever had."
He relishes the opportunity to play Timon, a meerkat who pals around with a flatulent warthog named Pumbaa.
"Timon thinks he's got everything figured out, but nearly everything onstage can eat him," said Cordileone. "He's very confident, yet as soon as he hears the slightest scary sound, it's 'See you later, alligator.' "
The actor, who home-schools his fourth-grade daughter on the road -- his wife teaches in New York -- enjoys manipulating the bunraku-style puppet that director Taymor tweaked for the show. Typically, the actor would be covered in black so as not to be noticeable. In "Lion King," the actor is Timon's visible operator and alter-ego.
"Everything I do is funneled through this puppet," he said. "My job is to make it seamless. Sometimes the people confuse the two of us and ask, how does he make it blink? That's theater magic, baby."
The tour, even with eight shows a week, never gets tiring, he said.
"Before I started in this company, the longest run I'd done was five or six months, and that was three shows in rep," he said. "But because of Julie's artistic vision, I find that it only gets better the longer you do it. You never get tired of the songs or walking through the audience. I can see why people have done it for 14 years."
When they come back to the Twin Cities, the actors expect to see big differences. Some things, however, haven't changed that much. The sports teams seem to be stuck in a kind of purgatory, Cordileone suggested, one that he empathizes with.
"The theater life and my character's life is full of ups and downs," said Cordileone. "It's one big emotional roller coaster, sort of like being a Vikings fan."