Arts » Stage

A Lion Share

John Rensenhouse leaves home once again.

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Though he lives in Kansas City, actor John Rensenhouse has been absent from these parts for a while. After six months in Montgomery, Alabama, with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and another six doing plays in St. Louis and Cincinnati, he has been back in town only long enough to press his clothes and a few hands before his next gig: a year with the first national tour of Disney's extraordinarily successful The Lion King.

"I leave Saturday for six weeks of rehearsals in New York with Julie Taymor," Rensenhouse said last week. "And I've never done a musical. Well, except for operettas at Hocker Grove Middle School."

But Rensenhouse, who finds himself doing a ton of Shakespeare (or, more specifically, "a lot of King Lear"), has seen his career take a number of interesting detours. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin's Master of Fine Arts program in 1981, he moved to New York -- and was cast in the soap opera The Edge of Night the very next day. "I was a classically trained actor, and the soap opera, a complete surprise, was not supposed to happen," he remembers.

After spending a year playing an extortionist who was eventually murdered, he appeared in the national tour of Noises Off, then performed in several regional theaters and spent some time in Los Angeles doing spots on episodic television. Though he had returned to Kansas City for several jobs, including the starring role in the Missouri Repertory Theatre's 1988 production of Dracula, he lived the gypsy life until 1997, when he finally bought a house here.

"And my phone hasn't stopped ringing," Rensenhouse says. He is one of the lucky actors without a lot of time on his hands. Clearly one of the best calls in the last year was the one from Disney telling him he would be on the Lion King tour. He will be understudy for two very different but equally prominent roles: Pumbaa, the wise-cracking warthog, and Scar, the evil nemesis of cuddly Simba.

"I didn't know going in that [the call] was for an understudy but quickly found out," he says. Though other actors tried to get him to change his mind, Rensenhouse says he wasn't deterred by the less-than-marquee billing. "One said, from a bitter experience she had had, 'Oh, don't do it. You'll be treated like a second-class citizen.' But everyone else said, 'Oh, absolutely -- go.'" Undoubtedly, the way national touring schedules go, with actors' needing vacations and suffering the ailments that come from breathing hotel air, he'll play both roles more than sporadically.

Rensenhouse says the fact that he hadn't sung a note in a show was less of a stumbling block than he imagined -- especially after conferring with a good friend, actor Tom Hewitt. Hewitt, who received a Tony nomination for his Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, played Scar on Broadway. "We were having drinks after one of his Lion King performances, and he said, 'You'd be good in this part,'" Rensenhouse recalls. "When I said, 'Tom, I don't sing,' he said, 'You don't have to sing that well. You act it.' And that's how you approach it." Just in case, however, Rensenhouse says he's been taking two singing lessons a week.

The cachet and size of The Lion King means the tour will stay at least two months in each city. "Over a year, it will only be six cities," he says, adding that Kansas City is not on any schedule he's seen, at least through 2003. "We start in Denver, and then there's Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Cincinnati."

The only down side of the job is the time Rensenhouse must spend away from those he leaves behind: a partner, a sister and his actor cronies. "It's sad and not easy. But, of course, at the same time, it's incredibly exciting," he says. Post script: Kansas -- the state and the state of mind -- were on acerbic comic Sandra Bernhard's mind last month at Joe's Pub in New York. The venue shares the same roof as the Public Theatre, much like the restaurant Sienna shares a space with the Quality Hill Playhouse in Kansas City. Joe's offers cold schooners of Harp's and an intimacy that makes patrons feel as if they're witnessing a private performance. Between such songs as Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero" and Elvis Presley's "Kentucky Rain," Bernhard raved and ranted about the Bushes, Osama bin Laden (based on his turban-wrapping skills, he's obviously "a big old queen," she said) and the fashionistas who intrigue and repel her. Of the latter, she mentioned her friend Angela Lindvall, the top model and Lee's Summit native who is about to star in the film CQ with Gerard Depardieu. It seems Lindvall is getting back to the land, having purchased an organic farm somewhere in the state just west of her native Missouri.

At NYC's newest theater rehab, the Zipper Theatre (so named for its former life as a zipper factory), frequent Missouri Repertory Theatre actor Jayne Houdyshell (Linda Loman in the Rep's Death of a Salesman) had a choice role in Richard Mee's insane True Love, playing a zaftig auto-body-shop denizen whose sexual predilections run to tight ropes and humiliation -- but at least she isn't a victim of incest or pedophilia, like most of the other characters.

Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding director and cocreator Larry Pelligrini has deep theatrical connections to Kansas City. They include Kansas City uber-publicist Wendy Tapper, who produced the world premiere of Pelligrini's interactive play Aunt Chooch's Birthday beneath Ward Parkway Shopping Center in the mid-'90s before its ill-fated Off-Broadway run. Pelligrini's new play is Blessing in Disguise, and it was recently given a thoroughly engaging staged reading in New York. The show is set mostly backstage at a fictitious drag club where the eldest performer mothers and bickers with a rainbow coalition of younger queens. It is scheduled for an Off-Broadway run later this year and has a bitchiness quotient Late Night audiences would love.

Meanwhile, Tapper and her PR partner, Michael Poppa (who played a G.I. in Chooch in KC and NYC), have snagged a new client: entertainer Ben Vereen. Tapper and Poppa recently attended a Hollywood Beautification Project benefit (at the new Kodak-sponsored theater that will house the Oscars) that featured their client and his good friend Liza Minnelli. Tapper and Minnelli reportedly made frequent side trips to the terrace, where they shared girl talk and cigarettes.

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