Talk about big shoes to fill. It must be terribly difficult to take on a role created by the incomparable Robin Williams, but James Monroe Iglehart knows a thing or two about working hard and achieving the Broadway dream. That is the wonderful thing about Iglehart – he didn’t rest on his laurels or simply do his best Robin Williams impression for his role as the Genie in Disney’s new musical “Aladdin.” Instead he created his own take on the fun-loving, fast-taking, smooth-singing Genie, and it has resonated with fans young and old to make “Aladdin” the huge hit it is on Broadway today.
Disney is no stranger to the Tony Awards. In fact, Disney’s musicals have been honored a lot over the years. “Beauty and the Beast” was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 1994, “The Lion King” was nominated for 11 (and took home an impressive six) and 2012’s “Newsies” was nominated for eight awards (winning two.) However, the most recent Disney adaptation has been the much-anticipated musical version of “Aladdin,” bringing all of the spectacle, magic and huge dance numbers that theater-lovers have come to expect from the name Disney.
One of the smartest things that Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw did with “Aladdin” was to stray from the iconic blue-skinned smoke-and-mirrors genie created by Robin Williams in 1992. Instead, Nicholaw created an entirely new, yet somehow familiar version with James Monroe Iglehart in the role. Iglehart’s performance is a classic example of traditional song-and-dance Broadway brilliance. His charisma shines almost as bright as his smile, and he has created a genie that you never want to leave the stage. It’s Iglehart’s warmth that seems to leap off the stage and into the delighted hearts of lucky theatergoers of all ages, warmth that is so charming and so magnetic that it’s almost palpable. Iglehart’s performance of the well known song “Friend Like Me” is enthralling, and even though the number itself is probably a little too long, it still feels like you don’t want it to end. This is due to the hilarious and charming appeal of Iglehart himself.
Iglehart is also not very well known on Broadway. This is his first Tony nomination, though he was recently seen on Broadway in both “Memphis” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” However, it’s his genial performance as the Genie that is the real winner here, outshining the other hugely talented nominees in his category.
And what a category it is. Danny Burstein is up for his work in “Cabaret,” Nick Cordero is nominated for “Bullets Over Broadway,” Joshua Henry is nominated for “Violet” and Jarrod Spector is up for “Beautiful – The Carol King Musical.” All of the nominees are strong, and it’s wonderful to see so many new faces on this list. In fact, both Nick Cordero and Jarrod Spector are also first time nominees, but this category should go to Iglehart. He could easily have relied on Robin Williams impressions to phone-in this role, but thankfully, he did not. Instead, he has masterfully managed an entirely new version of the iconic Genie, filled with humor, heart and a voice powerful enough to fill the huge Broadway Theater to the rafters.
“Aladdin” has been nominated for five Tony Awards in 2014, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography. Frankly, it could easily take all five, however the competition in some of those other categories is just as tough as Iglehart’s category for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. The awards are always difficult to predict, so tune in to CBS on June eighth to see who takes home the coveted statue.
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Deborah Flomberg is a theater professional, freelance writer and Denver native. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.