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Life in the Pride: Theatrical Lion Larry Yando
by Catey Sullivan

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Pictured Larry Yando (left) and Yando as 'Scar.' Photo by Joan Marcus, ©Disney.

Some days, the real-life villains out-evildo even Scar, fratricidal feline of The Lion King.

Or so Larry Yando, the Chicago actor who has been performing for roughly a year and a half as the animal kingdom's ultimate bad guy, discovered when The Lion King stopped in Tempe, Arizona.

'The first week we were in Tempe, a couple of the cast members got called nigger and faggot in a Starbucks,' said Yando, 'It really shocked me. I thought, well, once again, I've been living in a bubble where everyone is kind and loving.'

Truth be told, Yando has been in something of a bubble, at least as he drives from state to state in the service of Julie Taymor's wildly acclaimed musical about Simba, a lion cub orphaned when his evil uncle Scar kills his father in a hostile takeover of an African ecosystem.

Yando is traveling with his mutt Cooper, 16 ( 112 in dog years ) , and his cat Henri, 8. The 1997 red Subaru Outback he bought specifically so 'I can take care of my senior citizens' is nothing if not an on-the-road refuge filled with the kind of unconditional love only pets can provide.

For awhile, Henri and Cooper were all Yando wanted in the form of long-term relationships.

Once more, into the breech

'The start of the tour totally coincided with my not wanting to be with anybody for a while,' Yando said. After all, he'd survived the unkind end of a 12-year relationship with one of Chicago's more generically handsome actors, and the demise of a four-year relationship that followed.

But now, Yando is ready to start prowling through the complex and potentially treacherous mire of human romance once again.

'I'm like, OK, I have to stay in one city long enough so I can start dating again before I'm hobbling around on a walker,' he said.

Until September, Yando is back in Chicago. Dates should not be hard to come by.

If the theater community here were high school, he'd be Homecoming King.

And although he's moved out of his apartment-gone-condo of 14 years on the 2700 block of North Lincoln Avenue, Yando's finding it sweet to be back in town.

Scenes from a career

Since graduating from the Goodman School of Drama in the mid-1980s, Yando has become an indelible part of the theater community in these parts. He's part of an elite group of male actors—Guy Adkins, Greg Vinkler, Lance S. Baker, and Kevin Gudahl also come to mind—who possess a chameleonic ability to morph themselves into a staggeringly diverse array of different characters.

When Yando performed the anthemic 'I Am What I Am' as the gloriously flamboyant Albin in the Marriott Theatre's early 1990s production of La Cage aux Folles, one jaded north suburban high school social worker in the audience was moved to tearfully exclaim, 'I wish I could take every one of my kids to see this show.'

In the Writer's Theatre production of Nixon's Nixon, a long-time municipal politician and former 1960s radical activist actually had his jaw hanging open at intermission in reaction to Yando's eerie channeling of Tricky Dick.

Then there's the Shakespearian Yando, who can fugue from arrogant king of commerce to impoverished, emotional wreck as Timon in Timon of Athens at Chicago Shakespeare Theater as effectively as he can serve up meat n' people pies as the deliciously vengeful and borderline psychopathic title character in Defiant Theatre's Titus Andronicus.

Of Shakespeare and Scar

Actually, says Lion King producer Aubrey Lynch II, it is Yando's extensive background with Shakespeare that makes him perhaps the best Scar working.

'Counting the understudies, there's like 12 Scars altogether,' Lynch said. 'They can be hard to keep track of. Not Larry.'

Anyone, Lynch said, can play the villain. But Yando's Scar is no cartoon bad guy.

'People forget how damaged and conflicted Scar is,' Lynch said. 'Larry brings a depth to the part that's extraordinary.'

Then there's the language of The Lion King's extraordinary puppetry. Erase all images of Kukla-Fran-and-Ollie hand puppets from your mind. The Lion King puppets are to hand puppets what elephants are to amoebas.

For Scar, Yando is outfitted in a lion head puppet attached to his skull and a massive, spine-like piece that arches along his back with the sinewy curve of a real lion. He walks on four limbs, with stylized lion legs and claws attached to his arms. ( It takes, Yando said, up to half an hour to de-costume himself after each performance. )

Coordinating full-body puppets with a real body to create the illusion of a menacing carnivore is not easy.

Again, Lynch points to Shakespeare as key to Yando's success.

'When you're doing Shakespeare, you have to learn to unlock the text—it's almost like learning a foreign language. In The Lion King, that foreign language is the puppetry. Larry knows how to translate,' Lynch said.

Breaking a leg the hard way

The physical demands of the role are formidable, especially given Yando's medical history.

Shortly after graduation from college, Yando discovered he had a tumor in his thigh when the growth became so large, it squashed and then smashed most of his upper leg bones.

He's had a lot of surgery since.

In fact, Yando joined The Lion King cast almost three months later than his contract called for, because he had to get the upper part of his femur replaced.

'When someone's that good, we're willing to wait,' Lynch said simply.

'Some days,' Yando said, 'I think I'm too old for this, I swear to god.'

And some days not. In April, Yando signed up for another year with the tour.

There's no place like home

But as much as he loves being part of a 'mythic' production that pays very well, the decision to re-up wasn't without conflict.

Yando has turned down several tantalizing offers recently, including a job off-Broadway in Austin Pendleton's acclaimed backstage drama Orson's Shadow.

'I was dying to do Orson's Shadow, ' Yando said, 'But it would have meant a salary cut of about 50 percent. Usually that wouldn't really matter to me—but I've started thinking lately that I really should make some money while I can. And The Lion King pays very well.'

But for all the time on the road, Chicago remains home for Yando. Shortly after arriving in town for Lion King, Yando showed up at a birthday party for actor Sean Allen Krill.

It was gala populated by a veritable who's who in Chicago's Equity theater community.

'All of my best friends were there, ' Yando said. 'It was like total overload, and I kind of freaked out, but I was so happy. I realized how much I miss the people here. They're my family.'

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