Behind the Curtain: ‘Aladdin’ Actor Talks Disney Magic

Zach Bencal (far left) in Aladdin

SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Zach Bencal calls the spectacle of Aladdin pure “Disney magic”: the hand-made costumes, the special effects…and the flying carpet.

But just as a magician never reveals his parlor tricks, neither does a Disney employee who values his job as a performer in the national tour of Aladdin, whose genie and magic carpet land tomorrow for a two-week engagement at the Peace Center.

“When you see the show, you’ll wonder how we did it,” Bencal told Carolina Curtain last week via phone while the company was having a blast in Disney mecca in Orlando. Sometimes, the cast is even amazed at the imagineering backstage.

And while the cast of Aladdin didn’t perform at Disney World, the poor pauper with a magic lamp was well represented with solos shows at the theme park by Broadway’s original Aladdin Adam Jacobs and the original Australian Genie Michael James Scott.

Bencal, 29 and on hid first national tour, plays Babkak, one of Aladdin’s three pals along with Ben Chavez’s Omar (“the pure and sweet one”), and Colt Prattes’ Kassim (“the hothead ringleader”). “Babkak is dry, sarcastic, always hungry – there are at least 10 food jokes in the show – and is really the brains behind the team,” Bencal said.

And why do fans of the original popular 1992 animated film not remember these characters? The trio was dropped from the script and replaced with Abu the talking monkey.

But for the live 2011 musical, these lads were resurrected, along with three scrapped compositions by Tonyand Academy Award winner Alan Menken (Newsies) with lyrics penned by the legendary Howard Ashman, along with four new songs by Menken, Tim Rice and book author Chad Beguelin.

The original concept, Bencal said, was written as a tribute to Ashman, who died from AIDS complications in 1991 before the original film opened, and later won Oscars for best score and original song, “A Whole New World,” sung in the film and musical by Aladdin and Disney’s first brown princess, Jasmine.

The musical version, he said, features “literally one of the most diverse casts in any show on Broadway.”

Based on One Thousand and One Nights (itself based on an ancient Chines folk tale), Aladdin is set in the fictional melting pot city of Agrabah with influences from many cultures, particularly evident in the 337 costumes worn in the show and hand-crafted in 28 different shops around the world and featuring 2,039 fabrics and trims from Morocco, Turkey, India, Uzbekistan, China, Tahiti, Japan, Guatemala, Mexico, France, Italy, England and Germany.

And it typical Disney fashion, Aladdin, it’s story, spectacle, romance and humor will appeal to all.

“This show is crafted in such a way,” he said. “that is good for everyone in the family … and is a perfect date night out for adults.”

Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!), this musical boasts an incomparable design team, with sets, costumes and lighting from Tony Award winners Bob Crowley (Mary Poppins), Gregg Barnes (Kinky Boots) and Natasha Katz (An American in Paris).

Disney’s Aladdin runs February 12-23 at the Peace Center, 300 S. Main St. in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 467-3000 or visit peacecenter.org.

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