FOLLOWING the five-month residency of Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton,” the Hollywood Pantages Theatre transformed into ‘a whole new world’ this January with the arrival of Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Adapted from the 1992 animated classic and centuries-old folktales including “One Thousand and One Nights,” the staging of “Aladdin” takes the audience to the made-up city of Agrabah. There, you meet Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) — nicknamed a ‘street rat’ for his thievery and other maneuvers — and his three friends Babkak, Omar and Kassim (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Mike Longo). As the story goes, Aladdin meets the Genie (played by Michael James Scott who received a lot of roars and standing ovations on opening night) who grants the former three wishes, including transforming into Prince Ali in a bid to wed Princess Jasmine (played by Courtney Reed until February 18 and Isabelle McCalla for the remainder of the run).
“Aladdin” opened on Broadway in 2014 and remains a resounding hit, like many of Disney’s productions. The musical continues its first national tour this year, including a three-month stop in Los Angeles, where it formally opened on Thursday, January 11.
For the Filipino-American community in Southern California, beyond the visual overload and energetic numbers (the iconic “A Whole New World” number is as shining, shimmering splendid as anticipated), seeing Fil-Am talent take on principal roles is not to be glossed over.
Fresh off opening week, the Asian Journal interviewed Jacobs (whose mother is Filipina) and Reggie De Leon (Iago) about bringing their respective characters to life and representing Fil-Ams on stage.
Adam Jacobs on becoming Aladdin
Jacobs, who originated the title character on Broadway for which he received a 2014 Drama Desk Award nomination for “Outstanding Actor in a Musical,” said characterizing Aladdin continues to be satisfying years and hundreds of performances later.
“It’s [a] very physical…[and] very demanding role. So you have to have comedic chops, you have to be athletic, and you have to sing and dance. Do it all, right? It’s a very demanding role but because of that, it’s super rewarding,” Jacobs told the Asian Journal. “It’s the best role I’ve had in my career so far.”
The actor from Half Moon Bay, California — who previously played Simba in the national tour of Disney’s “The Lion King,” Marius in “Les Miserables,” and Sky in “Mamma Mia!” — was scouted for Aladdin back in late 2010 then went through a few rounds of auditions before he secured the role.
In working with director Casey Nicholaw (who won a Tony Award for “The Book of Mormon”) and book writer Chad Beguelin, Jacobs said there was an opportunity to develop and interpret the character as his own.
“The three of us went through and saw what worked and what didn’t. It’s such an amazing experience to be able to create a role because you have that opportunity to sort of make it your own and you can shape it,” he reflected. “You try something out and it doesn’t necessarily work. We went through so many different versions of lines. It’s such a cool thing to be able to take it and really hone your strengths.”
In addition to “A Whole New World,” Jacobs’s favorite number includes “Proud of Your Boy,” which Aladdin sings to his mother who passed away.
Of “Proud of Your Boy,” he said, “Aladdin’s saying, ‘I’m gonna make you proud,’ and fulfill that promise and to stop stealing. I sing that pretty much early in the first act and it’s his whole motivation turns into the whole show. It’s a beautiful song and it’s my favorite song to sing. You have this amazing music of Alan Menken.”
There’s also “Friend Like Me,” a nearly 10-minute scene alongside the Genie, which on opening night resonated with and wowed the audience.
“So couple those numbers with the amazing set and the costumes. I think people are blown away by the costumes pretty much more than anything else when they come see it. They’re pretty incredible,” he said. “On one pair of pants, you have over a thousand Swarovski crystals. They didn’t skimp going from Broadway to the tour, which is great. A lot of tours scale down when they bring it on the road but not Disney — Disney can luckily afford to do it so it’s pretty nice.”
Now in LA, Jacobs’s daily routine is filled with being a dad and “chasing down” his 4-year-old twin sons, then he switches to “Broadway-mode and [does] a show for 2,703 people every night.”
“I have my tricks and things that I do to get into my own headspace. I have juggling balls which help me get into it. I have my stretching routine and a mini-gym set up which is just cables and weights and so I have a whole physical routine and a vocal warm-up that I do for my pre-show rituals,” he described.
In playing a prominent role, Jacobs is keen on talking about his Filipino heritage and being one of the leading Fil-Am talents on Broadway.
“I’m very proud to be able to represent Filipino Americans on stage. There aren’t that many but I think on Broadway, you know, at least [when] you’ve been living in New York and working on Broadway and it’s slowly starting to become more inclusive…[and you] see more roles for Asian-Americans and it’s good and it’s what needs to happen and the theatre world always seems to be a step ahead of the TV and film world. I’m hoping that that will follow soon,” he said.
His sister Arielle Jacobs (“Wicked,” “In the Heights,” and “Into the Woods”) will begin playing Princess Jasmine on Broadway this February. Aside from his breakthroughs on Broadway, Jacobs shared that one of his proudest moments was when he and Arielle did a cabaret show in San Francisco in which they sang “about our family coming to the United States” and paid tribute to their 92-year-old grandfather who is a World War II veteran.
“It’s pretty cool that we were able to share that with him and give that to him — what a joyous special moment,” he said.
Reggie De Leon as comic relief Iago
For De Leon, who brings Iago (Jafar’s sidekick parrot) to life with punchy, comical bursts, performing at the Pantages is a “full-circle” moment. It’s the theater where De Leon — who was born in Hollywood and grew up in Santa Fe Springs — saw his first major musical, “Phantom of the Opera.”
“Now I’m here and get to be on the other side of the curtain and perform for hopefully the next generation of theater artists out there. We [have] a lot of wonderful kids coming to see the show. It’s just a very cool thing. A really, really neat experience like coming full-circle,” De Leon told the Asian Journal.
De Leon caught the “acting bug” at age 20, beginning with starring in the Inland Valley Repertory Theatre’s production of “The King and I.” His resume has since spanned stage (“La Cage Aux Folles,” (“Beauty and the Beast,”) television (“Mom,” “Young & Hungry,” “Melissa & Joey,” “Modern Family”), film, and live shows at Disneyland and California Adventure (“Snow White: An Enchanting Musical,” “Frozen: Live at the Hyperion”).
He was urged by friends to audition for Iago, which was being played by fellow Fil-Am Don Darryl Rivera on Broadway.
“I kind of always kept my eye on [the role] because I had a number of friends tell me that whenever ‘Aladdin’ was auditioning that I need to go in because if it’s like if you were to see a picture of Don Rivera and me,” he said. “Even I have a difficult time… it’s difficult to discern who’s who. I would get a picture of him and be like, ‘That’s me! Oh wait no, that’s Don.’ So we look very similar. We also have very similar mannerisms.”
De Leon recounted that in LA, he initially auditioned to be a Broadway replacement for Iago. However, a year later, he tried out again for the part in New York for the national tour and was eventually invited for a callback, which Disney flew him out for. In the span of a few days, he officially got the role.
“I was just enamored with Don Darryl’s interpretation of it. And of course, growing up watching the movie, Gilbert Gottfried left an indelible mark in my mind with the character. I love Iago. So he was a really fun character and is definitely one of my favorite characters in the movie,” he said. “So I kind of try to incorporate a little bit of both of their work and of course, bring my interpretation to it as well. So in the end, it’s sort of like a fusion: Don Darryl, Gilbert Gottfried and myself, if that makes any sense.”
With daily performances from Tuesday to Friday and twice a day on Saturday and Sunday, De Leon emphasized the importance of keeping energetic and healthy to deliver strong performances.
“It’s not really fair to call it work because basically I just feel like I get to play with my friends for two and a half hours. I just consider myself so blessed to be here and to be a part of this family because we really have become a family. You know when you’re on the road, you’re away from your family and so by extension, your co-workers and castmates become your family. We have a wonderful, wonderful bond,” he said.
As “Aladdin” stays in Los Angeles until March, De Leon and Jacobs invite Fil-Ams to come out and enjoy the performance.
“It’s cool when I go to the stage door and greet a lot of Filipino Americans who just feel happy to see somebody of Filipino descent standing up there. I always go to the stage to greet the fans, it’s just part of my routine,” Jacobs said. “I like to do that and see how the show has impacted them.”
De Leon remarked that in the first week alone, he’s “had close to 100 family and friends already come and see the show.”
“If you’re a fan of Disney, you grew up in the time of the movie, and you have that nostalgia feeling about it. It’s a really fun two and a half hours and that will take you away from all those troubles you might be experiencing in the world today,” De Leon said. “And to be able to see some Filipinos on stage representing is kind of a cool thing. I know I’m always so proud, whether it be theater, film or a TV show, and I see a Filipino out there because it’s challenging. It’s not easy to make a career out of this. And when somebody is able to, it’s like a victory for all of us.”
Disney’s “Aladdin” will be at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for a 12-week engagement until Saturday, March 31. Performances are held Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m, Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., with individual tickets starting at $39. There is also a daily digital lottery for a limited number of $25 orchestra seats.