On October 23rd, 2019, I had the privilege to interview Ben Chavez who plays Omar in Aladdin. I would like to give tremendous thanks to Mr. Chavez, the show’s staff, and the communications department at the PPAC for helping to put all of this together. Tickets for Aladdin are still on sale now along with a discounted price for students called the student/senior rush and the show will be running through at the PPAC from October 29th, 2019 to November 10th, 2019. The theater is located at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, Rhode Island and the phone to the box office is (401) 421-2787. During the interview, Mr. Chavez provides a terrific description of the show.
Carvalho: Tell me a little bit about the show and who you play.
Chavez: So, Aladdin is a classic Disney story that people have fallen in love with over the last twenty-five plus years. People came to know this story through the animated film which was a huge hit. This staged version is basically that same story with a few new additional songs and a few new additional characters. In the original blueprints for the ’92 film, the writers had created blueprints for three characters to be Aladdin’s best friends, and their names are Omar, Babkak, and Kassim. They were Aladdin’s band of thieves, and when it came time to finalize the script for the film, they decided to go in a different direction and they created the popular character, Abu, which is Aladdin’s monkey sidekick. So, coming back to the staged version, our director, who is a Tony Award winner, very well known in the Broadway world, his name is Casey Nicholaw. He wanted to go back to that original script idea and bring those three characters back, Aladdin’s three best friends, as opposed to trying to create some kind of tacky animal creation on stage. He said, “let’s bring those three characters back.” So, that’s kind of the reason I have a job now. My character’s name is Omar, and out of the gang of Aladdin’s friends, he is the shy, nervous one, but he’s definitely the most loyal friend and will always stick by Aladdin’s side throughout the story. So, that’s a little bit about my role and about the show.
Carvalho: What are the differences between the three friends of Aladdin and Abu? What do the three characters have that make it different?
Chavez: Well, what I love about the characters is that I feel that they give the audience a more extensive lens into the world of Agrabah, which is our fictional city where the show takes place. In Aladdin’s storyline, he is a young guy just trying to create a better life for himself. He’s homeless, he has no parents, he lives on the streets, and in order to eat anything at all, he’s got to steal for food. What I think is great about these three characters is that they help us understand the stakes of Aladdin’s situation. He not only has got to fend for himself, but he’s got these three guys and he’s got to have their backs and they have his. So, what I love about the characters is they give their voice to the community, give their voice to the world, and the three friends definitely have specific differences. Like I said, Omar is kind of the scared, nervous friend who very loyal. Babkak is the dry, witty friend who’s always interested in food. He’s always wants to know what we’re eating next and he usually provides a lot of fun humor for the audience. Then we kind of have the leader of the pack; his name is Kassim. He’s kind of the strong, tough guy who’s always got the bright ideas that sometimes get us into a little bit of trouble. So, it makes for a really great trio; a lot of the content that we do on stage is kind of slapsticky. The job of our characters is that whenever we come on stage, we like to make the audience smile and provide them that comic relief because the storyline between Aladdin and Jasmine, while it is a Disney story, it’s still a pretty serious high stakes story with two characters that are stuck in very different circumstances. They feel trapped, but they’re trying to do whatever it takes to make a better life for themselves, even if it means stealing or, in Jasmine’s case, it means escaping the palace and going against all of the ancient ways that her father believes in. So, the three of us, whenever we come on stage, we kind of are out to just lighten up the situation and make the audience smile.
Carvalho: The original Disney version of Aladdin had a lot of outlandish effects and magic. How do you guys have that sort of magic effect that is synonymous with Aladdin?
Chavez: The film is definitely a good template for the creation of the staged production. Something that the audience can definitely expect when coming to see our show is that magical element, that true Disney magic that they’re so good at accomplishing. There’re definitely some moments, some jaw-dropping magic moments in the show that, even though I’ve been involved in the show for about seven months now, I still find myself in awe as to how this magic happens on stage. The spectacle of the show is amazing, and you get to witness a lot of the magical elements when the Genie’s onstage. The Genie does a big production number which is the classic: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me. We have crazy lighting and projections in the show, and we have pyrotechnics. That number that he does in the end of act one is one of the most exciting numbers that I’ve ever seen. In act two, Aladdin and Jasmine take that magic carpet ride, and the magic that our designers and Disney have created is truly some of the most amazing magic works that I have ever seen, and people leave the theater just jaw-dropped at how the magic carpet ride is truly unbelievable magic. So, that’s something that the audience can look forward to is seeing the magic that comes out of the Genie’s entrances and exits and his production numbers, and then that magic carpet ride is just spectacular. So magical.
Carvalho: With doing this show, what kind of effect has it had on you? What kind of influence has it had on your life?
Chavez: A lot of the people in our show have grown up doing theater since the time they were a kid, and that was definitely the case for me. I started in the arts when I was three years old; I had started playing the piano when I was three and when I was four, I added on all of the other musical theater elements: singing, dancing, acting. This career is something that I have pursued for basically my entire life. I studied theater in college at New York University and I’ve spent the four years after college doing smaller, regional gigs that would last between two to three months, and I’ve always dreamed of doing something of this caliber. We are a sister company to the Broadway production. Aladdin is currently playing on Broadway in New York City. Their show has been running for about five years, and we are basically the exact same production as that Broadway one and we’re just taking it on the road. So, I have dreamt of doing something of this caliber and also getting to travel at the same time for as long as I could remember. So, having this opportunity, it’s a huge gift, it is the most exciting moment of my career thus far. Not only to get to work on a show of this caliber, but to get to work on a piece that is this touching and means so much to so many people. It has not only been a huge reward for my life, but I can tell it’s been a special thing for all of the audience that come into our theaters. We meet them after the show and people are so inspired, especially young people who are looking to pursue theater. They just love our show because they can see themselves on stage and they can see an example in us of what they might want to become someday, and that just means the world to me because I used to sit in the audience when I was a kid and watch people older than I was pursuing their dreams, and now to get to live that dream and inspire other people young and old, there’s just no better feeling than that.
Carvalho: You did mention that you have been traveling for a while. With this being your first national tour, what toll does this take on you to go from city to city going all over the country?
Chavez: I’ve been on the road with this show for six and a half months now, and I would say that the biggest toll that it takes on you is missing home and family, that’s the biggest for me. I am very much a hometown boy, I am from New Jersey, I am from a town called Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s not so far from Manhattan, so, I’ve lived in the same ten-mile radius my entire life growing up in New Jersey and going to school in New York City. I’ve never really left the New York City area, and this is definitely the longest amount of time that I’ve been away from home and been away from family, and that’s hard. On birthdays and holidays, when people are used to being together with family, for me, it’s not always the case. I’m often facetiming into family gatherings and holidays. Everybody understands that this is my dream, and I won’t be on the road forever, but I find other ways to remain close to my family and facetiming means everything for that. So, that’s definitely a big toll, and then we work six days a week and we do eight shows a week. So, we do two two-show days, and obviously it takes a lot to maintain our physical health and mental health. Thankfully, the cast and crew that we are working with in this show are amazing people, it’s really like a giant family. So, we all have each other’s backs, and in those moments where you get a little tired or you get a little homesick, someone in the company is always there to reach out to you or to spend time with you. So, I would say that being homesick is probably the biggest toll that it takes on me.
Carvalho: To get people to go to this show, what would be the one thing that you would want them to take away from it and to get them to want to go see this show?
Chavez: I would say that this show is fun for all ages, that’s a definite. This show is fun for all ages. It’s great for any occasion, whether it’s just a family going out to the theater, it’s really amazing for a date night, and you don’t have to be a kid to see this show. I would say that people should be ready to laugh and smile a lot. This is one of those feel good musicals that from the second of the first note played by the orchestra, you get chills. The orchestra’s amazing, and for two and a half hours, you just get to go on a magical ride and you will laugh your butt off and you will walk away from this show smiling and singing the songs. So, I would say that audiences should run to see this show b