BWW Interview: Ben Chavez of Disney's ALADDIN, Playing Feb. 12-23 at Peace Center
A whole new world comes to Greenville, SC, when the North American tour of DISNEY'S ALADDIN arrives at the Peace Center for a special two week engagement.
This Tony Award winning stage spectacular, based on the beloved 1992 animated movie, features all the songs you remember plus brand new songs and characters.
We asked Ben Chavez, who plays Aladdin's friend, Omar, to tell us more.
BWW: Can you start off by telling me just a little bit about your background?
I am originally from Rutherford, New Jersey, about 20 minutes outside of Manhattan. So I grew up being so close to Manhattan that I can see the Empire State Building from my hometown. But it is very much a suburb of New Jersey and definitely proud to call myself a New Jerseyan. I got involved in the arts when I was three years old. I started with piano and fell in love with that instrument. And then when I was four, I added on dance, singing, and acting, and fell in love with those as well. So that was my big extracurricular activity as a kid. I never played a single sport in my life. I was only doing piano and dance and all those kinds of things. And that was my life! I did that through high school - I went to a performing arts high school in Jersey - and then I studied theater at NYU, with an emphasis on musical theater. And then I graduated in 2015 and have been working pretty consistently since then.
And then this is your first tour, though, right?
Yeah. I've been on the show for nine months now. Right, which is Yeah. Yeah, it's crazy. I feel like the time has just flown. I feel like I just joined this tour last week and already nine months have flown by!
Wow, that's good! So the rest of the cast and crew must be pretty good to hang out with.
They are. It really is like a family. And it's a unique situation because you are kind of eating, breathing, sleeping the same air as you're working. They are not only your colleagues, but also your travel mates and sometimes your roommates and they are, you know, your friends and family. They're your support system after hours as well. So I'm thankful we've got a great team on this project. And it makes traveling and being away from home so much easier when you have a great community that you're working with.
So tell me a little about the production.
The show - and I'm not just bragging because I work for the show - but I can say that the show is really spectacular. I had an opportunity to see the show twice before I was ever a part of it, before I ever knew I was going to be a part of it. I saw it twice on Broadway - once, probably three years ago, and once just before I joined the tour. And then, of course, when I joined the tour, before I was actually performing on stage, I got to see the show many times in rehearsal. So even just as a spectator, I can say that the show is truly magical. I mean, you laugh your butt off. And you even may need some Kleenex because you'll find yourself crying during the show, too. And that magic that Disney is so well known for comes alive in this show. Now that I'm a cast member and have done it over 300 times, I will stand in the wings and watch the magic carpet ride and just have my jaw to the floor because it is so spectacular and so magical. The show has been running on Broadway for just over five years. It's been on tour for nearly three years. And we're presenting a nearly identical production to the one that is on Broadway. And it's a Disney show, so it's great for people of all ages, but adults seem to really love this show. Because they're so surprised. They walk into the show thinking that they're going to see a kid's show. And of course it is a family friendly show, but I think adults are so surprised at how much they laugh at the jokes. The script has been kind of tweaked and updated to fit 21st century audiences. And, like, people laughed their butts off. I think this show makes for a great date night. It's great for Millennials who are coming back to see a movie that they grew up with in the 90s. We just receive so much positive feedback, and I feel like anybody who comes to the show, whether they're two or 92, will not be disappointed.
There's just something so amazing about these Disney stage productions.
I feel like the audiences are so just wowed by what is happening in front of their eyes in live theater. You know, anything is possible in movies, but to see what kind of magic we whip out of our hats on stage in front of people's faces? I think that really amazes them.
That spectacle is really a part of the show.
I think there's an importance to entertainment value in theater. So many of the shows that win awards are things that have very deep, touching stories with incredible acting performances. And obviously, our team is amazing, but sometimes you just gotta go to the theater and have a good time. You know? And I think that's what our show offers. It is a love story about two people who are trying to make a better life for themselves, which we can all identify with. So there is that sentimental element, even to a Disney show. But the entertainment value is just through the roof. And everybody just has such a blast in the show.
Tell me a little bit about your character and how Omar fits into the whole thing.
Omar is part of a trio, and our trio are new characters to the story that people have not experienced in the movies. There's Omar, that's me, and then the other two friends are Babkak and Kassim. And the three of us are Aladdin's little gang. We're his best friends, we're his little posse, and we are the street rats together. We are in Agrabah and we steal things so that we can have some food and some money in our pockets. But the fun fact about our roles is that when the creators were writing the 1992 animated film, we were part of the original plan. Aladdin was supposed to have three human friends, but of course because animal sidekicks were such a big hit in Disney movies at the time, they decided to kind of scrap that and give Aladdin a monkey sidekick, which people have known and loved and that's Abu. But when Casey Nicholaw, the Tony Award winning director of this show, transformed the movie into a stage production, he said he really wanted to get back to the original grand plan and tap into the realism, and give Aladdin some human best friends. So in this stage production, Aladdin has three best friends, and we all have different personalities. Kassim is kind of the big muscle guy. He's very strong willed and he always thinks that he has the best ideas and sometimes he gets us into some trouble. Babkak is the one who's always interested in what we're eating next. He's always thinking about food, and a lot of the comedy that he brings to the show is food related and the audience loves that. Omar is kind of like the loyal sidekick, you know, the sweet one, the romantic. Whereas everybody else is on a mission to steal something or to storm the palace, Omar is just about sticking by his friend Aladdin and doing whatever the group needs. He can be the scaredy cat but he's always there to help out his friends. And then Aladdin is our group leader and the four of us make up an awesome, awesome team.
When I look at the song list, one of the songs that pops out to me - and it looks like you are part of this is - is the "Prince Ali" song, which is one of those songs that has really stuck with me over the years.
Yeah, that is one of the main melodies that people remember. And that's definitely one of the biggest production numbers in the show. And without giving away too much, Aladdin obviously gets to bring his parade into the palace and what's fun is that his friends get to go along with him, too, so we get to put on these really cool regal costumes and we're in that number and our job in that number is to introduce Aladdin before the parade comes in. So the curtain comes up in Act Two, and the first thing you see is the three of us, the three friends introducing Prince Ali and his entourage. And then we come back at the end, and then there's a really fun palace scene. But that's probably one of my favorite parts of the show, wearing that ivory, regal costume as the curtain comes up and we announce the arrival of Prince Ali.
Oh, that's awesome that you get to be part of that rags to riches journey as well, in your own way.
Yeah. And that's a thing that motivates our journey throughout the show, because not only are we trying to stick up for our friend, but we're also on this ride. We started the show being the street rats, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in the Sultan's palace. So we definitely go on the journey with Aladdin.
That's gotta be just great to play. You're a supporting role, but at the same time, you have your own arc and you're a big part of some of the big numbers.
Absolutely. And that's something that our direction team is very specific about. They want to make sure that we're not doing a surface level production. They really want us to be, as our Associate Director Scotty Taylor says whenever he comes to work with us, he says we're really kind of doing Shakespeare here, you know, like, as dramatic and intense and as realistic as Shakespeare's material is. We're trying to achieve the same thing. The stakes are high. Aladdin is trying to pull off a really, really big task here by impressing the princess and bringing his friends along and at any point this could go wrong. And it's like we don't know that the happily-ever-after is going to happen while we're in the middle of the conflict. So just because it's a Disney show doesn't mean the conflict is any less intense than any other show. And being Aladdin's friends, we are responsible for making sure that he's okay, too. So the stakes do get very high and, and that's what fuels us.
That's the kind of detail that I think probably helps make these productions soar, that they're not just a surface attempt to recreate the movie. You really are trying to make it its own thing and really dive into the story of it.
Yeah, because, you know, we're doing live theater. The best thing that we can offer is our humanity. I mean, obviously, there are technical elements and automation that comes with it too. But all I can offer when I'm on that stage is what I, Ben Chavez, can offer from my telling of the story. So it's not just doing a cartoon show on stage. It's a real journey.
Okay, well, one more thing. The genie is maybe the most memorable part of the original movie for obvious reasons. So tell me about the genie in your production.
The genie serves two purposes. He is the first character that we get introduced to in the show. He is the narrator. And he introduces us to the world of Agrabah, which is the fictional city that we're living in. And then he goes away and we see Aladdin's story start to unfold, and then, of course, we all know he encounters the genie through the magic lamp. And then genie is in the story, you know, so he goes from being a narrator to being a character in the story. And what I love about what Casey Nicholaw, the director, has done with the genie is -- well, obviously, nobody can, and we would never want to try and match the performance that we see in the 1992 film. I mean, that is iconic. So I think in creating the stage version, Casey was really trying to tap into a jazzy character who's got jokes, and he can sing and he can dance and he has magic at his fingertips. And so, a lot of the charm that we see in the genie is so brilliantly translated into this updated script. They've added in some contemporary jokes that people of today understand and find hilarious, things that you might see on Instagram or little things like that. And also, the role of the genie is a huge undertaking. He obviously has the biggest number in the show, which is "Friend Like Me." So that role is essential to the telling of the story. And, in fact, the role made such an impact in the theater community that the original actor who played it on Broadway, James Monroe Iglehart, won a Tony Award for this role. So not only is it huge to the story, it's an acting masterclass. I mean, he has like, monologues upon monologues and jokes upon jokes. So he needs to not only be an incredible comedian, but he needs to have a sentimental side. And he needs to be able to sing and dance his face off. When you see the show, the genie does this, like, nine minute number where he's just running all over the entire stage. So it's an incredibly aerobic role as well. This genie is doing cartwheels and tapping and making magic happen before your eyes. And I think when he comes out at the end to take his bow, people go crazy because they're just amazed that one single human can do all of that on a stage.
DISNEY'S ALADDIN runs February 12 - 23 at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC. For tickets and additional information, call the box office at 864.467.3000 or visit peacecenter.org.