Aladdin's Genie Brings "A Whole New World” to BroadwayJanuary 23, 2015 - by Elliott Richards
James Iglehart appreciates a good challenge. So much so, in fact, that while he’s on stage at the New Amsterdam Theatre flexing his comedic pecs, abs, glutes, vocal chords, and fancy footwork playing Genie in Aladdin, he frequently targets an apathetic dad, grandfather, or uncle in the second or third row and “breaks” them.
“Just the other day, I broke a guy,” says Iglehart, who won a Tony earlier this year for his no-holds-barred performance in Disney’s newest Broadway musical. “He was sitting with his wife and kids, and he was stone-faced. Then I said something and he smiled a little; I said something else and he smiled some more; finally I did some move or gesture and he lost it,” recalls Iglehart, adding that the proof of his success came post-show, when the former hold-out showed up at the stage door saying, “I want to shake your hand. I didn’t want to come. I can’t believe this was a show like this.”
Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann
Which pretty much sums up the critical and popular consensus that has proclaimed “a show like this” — one that features a magic lamp, flying carpet, and gilded Cave of Wonders — one of the most spectacular and enchanting family musicals to soar onto the Broadway scene.
Take, for example, the Cave of Wonders, where Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) rubs the magic lamp and — poof! — Iglehart, a genial, showbiz-loving, joke-spewing, tap-dancing, wish-granting Genie proceeds to stop the show as he launches into “Friend Like Me,” a killer production number that gives nods to Beauty and the Beast, Dancing with the Stars, Let’s Make a Deal, Fiddler on the Roof, and 42nd Street.
It is this song — coming at the end of Act I — that forges the bond between the title character and his magical mentor, opening the door to riches and romance for the handsome young street thief and potential freedom for Genie, captive to the whims of the master of the lamp.
The plot of Aladdin follows the hero who, with the help of Genie, masquerades as a prince to woo the sultan’s (Clifton Davis) daughter, Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed). Meanwhile, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, reprising the role he only voiced in the movie), the sultan’s wily vizier, is conspiring to succeed the sultan and wants the magic lamp for his evil ends.
Based on Disney’s 1992 animated film, the theatrical version naturally required some creative retooling for the stage: Aladdin’s BFF monkey, Abu, in the film has been tweaked into a posse of three good buddies (Jonathan Schwartz, Brian Gonzales, and Steve Burkhardt), while Jafar’s conspiratorial parrot Iago is now a human sidekick played by Don Darryl Rivera. And then, of course, there’s Genie.
“In the cartoon, Genie can take off his head and be a pink dragon,” says Iglehart, citing the logistic dilemma facing director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who opted to capitalize on the charismatic actor’s unique gifts to replace the transmogrifying animation and improvisational high-jinks that defined Robin Williams’ brilliant Genie portrayal in the movie.
Iglehart recalled that when he originated Genie in the show’s first production in Seattle, his performance was too much of an homage to Williams. After receiving a note from Nicholaw, however (“He said, ‘We love what you did, but want to make this show about the people in the show; we want to make this our version of Aladdin.’”), the actor recalled that the late Howard Ashman — who co-wrote the original score’s lyrics with Tim Rice — imagined Genie as a bandleader and the emcee of a show. From that point on, everything clicked.
“I was a rapper as a kid. I can move a crowd. I also knew Genie was a shape-shifter who could change voices,” he says. “So I had a chance to throw in my style while staying within the confines of Disney’s Genie, not Robin Williams’ Genie.”
And while Iglehart admits to being a serious fan of the animated original, it clearly takes a backseat to giving life to a magical character with the power to win over even the most disengaged theatregoers.
Genie’s final line says it all: “I just love a happy ending!”
Aladdin is playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St. For tickets, call 866-870-2717 or visit aladdinthemusical.com.