Article by Luis Vazquez
Photo by Xue Liang
The stage version of Aladdin is a unlikely love story between the Princess Jasmine and the poor boy of the streets Aladdin as reflected in the animated film it was adopted from. But it is also something else. It has from its inception to the current day a strong Filipino influence dating from the days of Lea Salonga to the current male lead Adam Jacobs.
This story does not work if the chemistry between the performers that play Aladdin and Jasmine is not present. For Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed, who are good friends away from the public, it simplifies many things. “If you have off-stage chemistry it translates easily on stage,” Courtney explained, “When you develop that sense of trust it’s almost like an old married couple that still has chemistry,” Adam added.
Courtney Reed, who has been in the role since 2010, unlike Adam has had many supporting roles until this lead one appeared. Her desire to keep her age and heritage a secret was her way of navigating the unsure waters the acting world is. “It was set up that way for me to eventually gain this leading lady role,” Reed pointed out, “It’s easy to get pigeonholed so easily but I fear it more for others than myself now that I am established.”
Courtney Reed and Jasmine are very much alike. Maybe it helped that Jasmine was Courtney’s favorite princess. Becoming the character you once idolized can have a weird effect on the actor’s psyche. “It’s still so very surreal. But I try to stay true to the character and add a little bit of me.”
The message of the film Aladdin is ultimately the thing one takes away from watching it. In an unsure world, they can remind us of the qualities that matter most. “One of my favorite things about the show it that it promotes being honest,” Courtney shared, “Being true and believing in yourself. It’s such a universal theme and I think if you can be honest with yourself you’ll get somewhere.”
The Aladdin class has a very lively trio of actors who serve as members of the ensemble and understudies to key characters including the lead. We got to speak to Angelo Soriano, Bobby Pestka, and Josh De la Cruz, all Filipinos as well, about speedy costume changes, the role of the understudy, and why the ensemble is essential. “One of our bigger jobs is to uphold the story by creating the backdrop to the principal characters,” Angelo explained, “We are part of all the big dance numbers and get to step out on some roles to embellish the story.” Bobby enjoys the production aspect with emphasis on the experience. “This ensemble is a great one and we are in a lot,” Bobby said, “There is a lot of dancing and spectacle and it’s a lot of fun.”
In this production we learned that the ensemble actors suffer multiple wardrobe changes during the production. That puts more pressure on preparation scene to scene. But there is help in this “We all have dressers. Stage hands help maintain, repair and more importantly for the run of the show they help us get changed. The fastest costume change is eight seconds,” De la Cruz shared.
The understudy is like on the job training for central roles that most covet and may one day succeed the star in. “Whether the principle actor is sick or on vacation, we are the first ones to jump in those roles and uphold the story,” Angelo pointed out. “Your job is just to know it,” Josh added, “Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of a rehearsal or put-in rehearsal where you get to be on stage with everyone in costume.”
The Filipino tradition is prevalent on the show and by extension Asian-Americans are in demand here. But it doesn’t mean improvement is not needed. Our ensemble weighed in their thoughts on this. “It’s a better time than it was because diversity is kind of hot now,” Josh explained, “As far as being easier, it’s not an easy business. In order for things to change people of color have to be reflected in the audience so producers know they have to reflect that on stage.”
It helps to have a real life experience to draw from. Angelo shared his story and how it relates to the character of Aladdin. “Funny story, I kind of grew up as a street rat and coming from that flavor and becoming Prince Ali at the end of the story, it’s all about overcoming what is provided and doing what you can to flourish into something bigger than it is.”
Sidekicks have lived in the shadows just as minorities have had to stand behind the chosen faces of this society even if they were just as accomplished. Don Darryl Rivera, who plays Iago, sidekick to Jafar feels the sidekick makes the star. “What’s great about Disney villains is they live larger than life, so even though Iago is a sidekick I think he sees himself as the main villain and if he was a little bit taller he would take over the world.”
Don is quite comfortable in his role knowing it’s what you make out of it that endures longer. He is also a big Disney fan. “I’m lucky that Disney has played such a huge part of my childhood and adulthood,” Don explained, “I get to be in a Disney show on Broadway eight times a week. There’s no bigger dream than that for a Disney fan.”
It’s important for a recurring character that the actor put a personal stamp on it. For Don, he plays a role that was a bird in the animated version but is human on stage. “I leave what Gilbert Gottfried had etched in our memories as Iago and I leave that spirit in there but encase him in a brand new being and I bring a lot of new physical comedy to the role that helps audiences identify with the new version of Iago.”
Rivera grew up playing many of the roles that was traditionally played by lighter skinned actors and maybe that made him a bit naïve when he later started trying out for parts in theatre. “It wasn’t really a struggle for me until I started going into the audition rooms and I was the only one who looked like me,” Don recalled, “I felt I was the wildcard but at the same time I was so determined to change their minds about the character they saw in their minds. It made me a stronger performer.”
The plight of Asian-American actors continues but at least in Aladdin, the feel of family can be attributed to a strong base of Asian-American actors who share the same heritage, many of who came here as immigrants who like Don, watched Lea Salonga, a Filipina who became a star playing Jasmine on Broadway, who was instrumental in inspiring him to go for the dream. “Being the son of immigrant parents, they wanted me to do good,” Don revealed, “They moved here to this country so I could have a better life. There’s nothing braver than that.”