One Question Quiz
Genie in action (Photo: Jeff Busby)
Genie in action (Photo: Jeff Busby)

AucklandJanuary 13, 2019

Friend like him: Gareth Jacobs on his star turn as Genie in Aladdin

Genie in action (Photo: Jeff Busby)
Genie in action (Photo: Jeff Busby)

Aladdin the musical is currently playing at Civic Theatre. Madeleine Chapman sat down with the star of the show, Gareth Jacobs.

There was a standing ovation at the Civic theatre in the middle of the musical Aladdin. It was genuine and long, a rarity. And it was all for Genie.

The role of Genie, while not eponymous, is the lead in Aladdin insofar as face, dialogue, and song recognition goes. Robin Williams provided perhaps the greatest voice acting performance of all time in the 1992 Disney film, and when the character was awarded more depth and stage time in the musical on Broadway, so too was James Monroe Iglehart with a Tony for his performance originating the role.

Like Hamlet, the role of Genie can make or break a show.

Gareth Jacobs knows this all too well. Before taking up the role, Jacobs understudied for Genie (and others) in the Australian cast. “I started with the show back when it first started in Australia in 2016 and I was the offstage standby,” he explained after rehearsals earlier this week. “I sort of waited in the wings for if someone was sick or they took holidays or something like that.”

In December 2017, Jacobs got the call that he’d been promoted. Instead of waiting to sub in every night, he was going to be the man to carry the show. A “dream come true” for someone who knew he wanted to do musical theatre ever since his parents took him to see “a heavy musical for a kid”, Phantom of the Opera. “I walked out of that thinking that this was the best thing I’d ever seen and I said to my mum and dad that this is what I’m going to do.“

After working mostly in theatre on cruise ships, Jacobs refers to Aladdin as “the first professional musical that I’ve done”. It may be his first and it may be in Australia and New Zealand, but there’s a career trajectory being etched for Genies that Jacobs may choose to follow. Michael James Scott, who preceded Jacobs in the Australian cast, is now playing the role on Broadway. And Iglehart, who originated the role on Broadway, is currently playing Thomas Jefferson/Lafayette in Hamilton, arguably the biggest musical of the decade.

Jacobs knows this, but also knows that he can’t simply replicate his predecessors’ performances to succeed. “No Genie plays it the same,” he said. “Being able to put my own personality in there and throw in some local jokes and humour is what differentiates each genie.” And the local jokes work. They’re not abundant – a mention of Takapuna here, a stuffed kiwi there – but they’re enough to keep the crowd invested early on in a typically long musical.

They stood like this for a long time during a mid-show standing ovation

Fittingly, the longest number is from Genie himself. ‘Friend Like Me’, a two minute animated number in the original film, is stretched to over seven minutes, with dancing, tap, karaoke, magic tricks, fireworks, basically everything. It’s so long and full of stuff that you can’t help but wonder if it will ever end (in a good way). Even Jacobs thought the same when he went to the Broadway show to see what he was in for. “I definitely looked at my watch a few times when I saw it the first time. I thought ‘oh god it’s still going! Okay, we can do this.” Book ending the number are three minute scenes with Genie essentially monologuing to Aladdin. In total, it’s 15 minutes of all Genie, all the time, and it’s the runaway highlight of the night.

I was nervous to see the show. By pure luck, I’d seen Aladdin on Broadway in 2015, with Iglehart in the role of Genie. He was incredible – he won a Tony for it, remember – and I knew that if the Genie wasn’t up to scratch, the whole show would suffer for it, more so than any other role or actor. I was also taking my 11 year old nephew to see his first musical, the same age Jacobs was when he saw Phantom of the Opera and it changed his life. I didn’t expect to change my nephew’s life but it would be nice for him to not think I was into lame theatre shows.

I needn’t have worried. As ‘Friend Like Me’ drew near, I crossed my fingers. Maybe I was amazed by it in 2015 because it was my first ever musical theatre experience and I was naive. It seemed the entire media industry was at the opening night and they’re a cynical lot. What if it fizzled?

Jacobs made his introductions, got good laughs, and launched into his big number. He tore the fake sky roof off the place. For those wondering whether touring companies of Broadway shows are a slightly lesser versions of the “real deal”, if this one was I certainly couldn’t tell. ‘Friend Like Me’ went on, and on, literal sparks flew, someone yelled out in surprise on more than one occasion, and when Genie finally stopped moving, the first time in what seemed like an hour, the audience stood. I looked over at my nephew and his mouth was hanging open.

The whole cast is exceptional but it’s Aladdin, and in Aladdin there’s one star and it’s Genie. Jacobs stepped into those Swarovsky-crystal-lined harem pants and they fit perfectly. He’s the star of the show. But like the Genie of Agrabah, he’s simply glad to be of service.

“Everyone walks out of here having forgotten about their troubles for a few hours, that’s the most rewarding thing for me. Knowing that I’ve been able to help them forget some of their day to day issues as they step into our fantasy world.”

It’s a fantasy world well worth visiting.

Aladdin – The Musical is showing at the Civic Theatre in Auckland until March 3. Find tickets here.

Keep going!