‘Aladdin’ on Broadway is a magical ride for this genie
James Monroe Iglehart, whom Seattle audiences saw when “Aladdin” had its tryout here, is finding the musical is magic: He’s reprising the role of Genie as the show prepares to open on Broadway.
AP Drama Writer
NEW YORK — The guy who plays the Genie in Broadway’s “Aladdin” isn’t hard to find.
He’s the one in the dressing room with Thor comic books and toys piled high. He’s the one with a Batman shoulder tattoo, a shaved head and the dialogue from the ‘80s cornball film “Condorman” fully memorized. He’s the one who took his wife to see “Smurfs 2” — on a romantic movie date.
He is James Monroe Iglehart, and if you spend more than 10 minutes in his sunny, infectious company, you understand why this comic book-loving comedian says, “I’m like a kid in a candy store right now.”
Seattle audiences saw him when “Aladdin” had a tryout in July 2011 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
As the fast-talking Genie in Disney Theatrical Group’s latest Broadway extravaganza, Iglehart is taking a different tack than his hero Robin Williams did in the 1992 animated “Aladdin.” And, no, he’s not blue either.
Iglehart channels some smooth cool from bandleader Cab Calloway and ragtime entertainer Fats Waller. The creative team also has urged him to make the role his own, and he has, adding things like a series of friendly fist-bumps with Aladdin. He’s also learned to tap dance.
“The fun thing about the Genie is that he plays outside the box,” he says. “All those ridiculous things I used to do to get attention I now get paid to do.”
That was apparent during a grueling recent afternoon at rehearsals, when Iglehart kept his energy and spirits up, despite frequent stops, false starts and adjustments.
Remarkably nimble for a big man, Iglehart effortlessly handled lead singing duties in front of almost dozen dancers. He banged drums, shimmied near nasty-looking long knives, made big kicks, did a quick wardrobe change onstage and then got onto a box amid a sea of flowing fabric and feather fans.
Tony Award-winning director Casey Nicholaw, whose previous hits include “The Book of Mormon” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” said Iglehart landed the job really quickly. It’s not every day a Disney nerd with stand-up comedy chops who can breakdance materializes at auditions.
“He’s so versatile. He can do anything,” says Nicholaw. “He’s also game, which is a huge, huge part of all of it. He’ll go, ‘You want me to do that? OK I’ll try to do that.’ Even if he can’t do it, he’ll keep trying.”
Iglehart was born and raised in Hayward, Calif., and graduated from California State University. During his senior year, he auditioned in San Francisco for a swing role in a tour of “Showboat” and got it.
“I didn’t know what a swing was. I thought I was playing the character named Swing,” he says, laughing. “My friends said, ‘No doofus. You’re actually understudying eight people.’”
Iglehart was destined for show business, but fought the impulse. His mother is a retired music teacher, his dad was an actor in the 1970s and an aunt was a dancer.
“There was something about acting and singing. I always knew it was there. I would try to fight it, try to fight it. I didn’t want to be an actor because my dad was an actor. I didn’t want to be a singer because my mom was a singer,” he says. “By high school I was like, ‘This is stupid. I can’t fight this any longer. This is probably what I’m supposed to do.’ Once I just acquiesced, life became so smooth.”
Iglehart paid his dues in regional theater — The American Musical Theatre of San Jose and TheatreWorks in Palo Alto were some of his stops — and then won a role in a new musical in 2004 called “Memphis” (which played at the 5th Avenue in 2009).
He got to Broadway before it did — he was a replacement in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” — and then jumped into “Memphis” on its way to New York, staying in it for three years.
His career has been made possible largely due to one person — his California-based wife, a molecular biologist who has been his best friend since they were 17. She supported him during his stints of low-paying regional theater and is the clear-eyed one in the marriage.
Once “Aladdin” opens, on March 20, his wife promises to relocate to New York. She’ll be there on opening night, with his nieces and nephews all dressed up. The guy smiling the most that might will be Iglehart.
“Not many people get to live their dreams,” he says, “and I’ve been blessed many, many times.”