By Callie Hietala
“It is not what is outside that counts, but it is what’s inside,” Logan Carter’s Genie says to an empty theater.
He and the rest of his cast mates are in the final weeks of rehearsal for Disney’s “Aladdin, Jr.” The play, set in the fictional Arabian kingdom of Agrabah, tells the story of a “diamond in the rough” named Aladdin who finds a magic lamp, befriends a genie, and ultimately learns that outward appearances matter less than what lies inside our hearts.
The script is an abbreviated version of the Broadway adaption of “Aladdin,” the Oscar-winning 1992 animated film produced by Disney. It will be performed by the Martinsville City Public Schools Drama Club students Friday, April 1 through Sunday, April 3 at the Martinsville High School auditorium.
Hayden Calfee, a 17-year-old junior at Martinsville High who plays Princess Jasmine, said there are some key differences between the stage production and the film that is familiar to many. For example, she said, the character of Abu, an animated monkey from the film, doesn’t appear in the play. Rather, Aladdin has three human friends — Omar (Max Rorrer), Babkak (Alex Butler), and Kassim (Caesar Draper) — “that are there with him throughout the whole play.”
Rajah, Jasmine’s tiger companion in the movie, is one of the princess’ handmaidens in the play, played by Jordan Foster.
The character Iago, a parrot in the film, also is a human in the stage production, said Eli Simpson, 17 and also a senior, who plays the show’s villain Jafar. In this production, Iago, Jafar’s companion, is played by Samson Ray.
Even the character of Jafar differs somewhat between stage and screen, Simpson said. “It’s not necessarily made prominent that Jafar is a sorcerer,” he said. “There’s one scene where he does an incantation, but nothing else.”
One thing that remains the same, though, is the music. As Genie says in the show’s opening number, “Agrabah is a place where everybody sings!”
Just a few weeks before the curtain goes up on the first performance, the cast’s singing was put to the test during a late afternoon rehearsal in the auditorium. School production staff were not happy with a just-completed run-through of the song “Prince Ali.” It lacked energy, they said.
“Every single time, you have to give 110 percent,” director Shauna Hines told the students. “You have to be the show you want to see.” Hines is the division’s coordinator of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math), CTE (career and technical education), and fine arts.
Other production staff members are music director Eric Becker, stage managers Lateisha Fuller and Sharon Millner, choreographer Karla Scales, master set builder Barry Dillard, and master artistic designer Emma Weatherly.
Hines and the rest of the staff give the cast a short break to refocus their energies, and then they’re back on stage, trying it again, dancers waving brightly-colored flags in the background as actors sing about the wealth and majesty of the mysterious Prince Ali. They didn’t nail it, but they got better.
One notable element about this “Aladdin Jr.” cast is the wide gap in age between the oldest and youngest actors. High school students share the stage with middle and elementary school students which can be at once rewarding and challenging, according to some of the older cast members.
Hines said the drama club has been incorporating younger students since 2018, when middle school students participated in a production of “Disney: Musical Revue.”
Carter said he has enjoyed the opportunity to meet and work with those outside of his age range and grade level, particularly because “you might be working with them again.”
Simpson added that, over the course of a number of productions, some of the older cast members have watched some of the younger ones grow up, as Simpson himself did with Rorrer. “I saw him go from a little kid to the guy he is now,” he said.
Freshman Jyshir Plunkett, who plays the title role of Aladdin, said he has enjoyed watching some of the younger cast members progress and grow from show to show.
The younger cast members aren’t the only ones expanding their craft over the course of rehearsals. The older actors have been able to work more deeply with understanding the characters they were portraying onstage.
“It’s not just memorizing,” Rorrer said, “there’s a certain level of creativity that goes into it. We get to show our more artistic side in some scenes, which is fun to do but it’s also a big challenge.”
The actors said that Hines sat down with each of them to help them think creatively to learn more about their characters.
“Who do you think Jasmine is,” Calfee said Hines asked her in a one-on-one session. From there, Calfee explained how she initially perceived her character from only having seen the film, and how that perception differed after reading the script.
“Then she’ll reflect, and ask a few questions like, ‘how do you think this will impact your performance?’” Calfee said.
Carter said he benefitted from doing character work with Hines as well. “When you watch the movie, you see Genie as a very powerful being. He’s able to do a lot of things. But once you slip into the role, read the script and try to truly understand the character, you realize that Genie is more human than you think. He does have his emotional side and that shows in the show. I really like that.”
Simpson said delving deeper into his character helped him realize “Jafar was a lot more evil than I initially thought he was. I knew he was evil, but playing him, you realize you have to be a truly evil person,” which he said is a far stretch from his own personality.
Taking on the title role of Aladdin was a stretch for Plunkett as well. “Aladdin Jr.” is the 14-year-old’s second production. He said he was struck by his character’s playfulness, particularly in serious situations, something the young actor found challenging in his portrayal. “Usually, I’m serious in serious situations, so it was kind of weird adjusting to it, and I’m still adjusting to Aladdin,” he said. “He’s a very playful person. He’s there to have a good time.”
Rorrer, who at 15, has already performed in 17 productions, including several films, noted that there is no cinematic counterpart to his character, Omar. “I based it off of Abu, but as you keep reading through the lines, you realized that rather than (Omar) being a playful trickster,” as Abu was in the film, “he’s more of a sweet, caring friend.”
All the cast agreed that the production staff did much more than help them learn lines, work on dance steps, and find their characters.
“We have phenomenal directors, choreographer, all of the staff,” Simpson said. “They do so much for us. They’ll make sure we have everything. If we do something wrong, they’ll work with us and talk with us.”
“They put so much time and effort into the show,” Calfee added. “If you can’t afford something, they will buy it for you. They have your back. And if it’s something personal that you want to talk to them about, they’re always there.”
Staff are not the only ones putting time and effort into the production. Calfee said managing her time between coursework and extracurricular activities was a challenge she had to overcome.
“I take eight classes right now, including college classes,” she said. “Trying to juggle memorizing my lines, memorizing dance moves, everything for the play and other extracurricular activities” with classwork was difficult. Luckily, she said, deadlines set by Hines over the course of the production helped keep the cast, Calfee included, on track.
Memorization was also a challenge for Plunkett, as was learning about his character, but as he began to find Aladdin, he found “how fun it is to act and be a character, changing how your life actually is into somebody else.”
Simpson said he had difficulty staying in character after the physical exertions of singing and dancing, and Carter said he struggled with keeping his breath steady during the high-energy musical numbers — a challenge he seems to have overcome if his performance in the show’s opener, “Arabian Nights,” during last Thursday’s rehearsal was any indication.
The energy and talent the whole cast brought to the stage during the run-through of the iconic song was electric. The vast, empty auditorium was filled with voices singing the tale of “a faraway place where the caravan camels roam,” painting a picture with music, song, and dance of the fantastical world the characters will inhabit during the show.
All the work, the rehearsals, the bonds, the memorization and character-finding, everything the cast has experienced since rehearsals began in January will culminate in three performances in the Martinsville High School auditorium at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 1-2, and a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 3. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door or online at mcpsfinearts.org.
Each actor hopes that the audience will walk away from the theater feeling the time and effort put in to bringing “Aladdin, Jr.” to life.
“I want them to feel everything,” said Plunkett. “I want them to feel our performance” and to leave feeling the same joy and magic the movie elicits.
“I want the audience to relate back to the characters and know they are more than a character,” Calfee said. “I want them to see the bond me and Jyshir have as Aladdin and Jasmine. I want them to leave with a good impression of our theater and our club and what it stands for.”
“I want the audience to feel happy,” Carter said. “Joy is a beautiful thing. To watch a show and see all the magic that can really happen on a stage, it gives you joy, it gives you happiness. At the end of the night, when they (the audience) walk out of the doors, I just want them to feel happy. I want them to have a smile on their face.”
The full cast of the MCPS Drama Club’s “Disney’s Aladdin, Jr.” includes: Aladdin (Jyshir Plunkett), Genie (Logan Carter), Jasmine (Hayden Calfee), Jafar (Eli Simpson), Iago (Samson Ray), Sultan (Nicholas DeJesus), Babkak (Alex Butler), Omar (Max Rorrer), Kassim (Caesar Draper), Isir (Zoey Hannans), Manal (Zion Perkins), Rajah (Jordan Foster), Prince Abdullah/Razoul (Nigel Cook.”
Members of the ensemble are Keandrius Beal, Bridgette Brent, Tahli Draper, Jaidence Hairston, Honesty Martin, Cameron Moore, KaVaughn Muse, Jeremiah Porter, Josiah Porter, Aurora Rankin, Lilly Rorrer, Veronica Smith, Jovonta Spencer, and Arianna Ybarra.