PROVIDENCE — Just over three years ago, East Providence native Albert Jennings was checking coats and selling candy at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway where Disney’s “Aladdin” was playing.
Now he’s on tour in the musical – and even has appeared in the title role.
With no help from a genie, the East Providence High School and Rhode Island College graduate has put in the work, both on stage and “on the ground,” as he puts it, working in coffee shops and theater concessions to earn money while pursuing his acting career.
Three years ago, however, an audition led to a role in the ensemble of the nationally touring production that comes to the Providence Performing Arts Center for a two-week engagement starting Oct. 29.
He plays multiple characters, but he also understudies Aladdin, and when the show was in Houston last year, he appeared in the title role.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow!’” Jennings said during a telephone interview from a tour stop in Durham, N.C. “I was selling candy; now I’m playing Aladdin.”
Fortunately, selling candy hasn’t been the major part of Jennings’ career. His resume includes appearing in the national tour of “Mama Mia!” and stints in shows onboard ships for Oceanic and Disney cruise lines.
“I got to travel – Italy, Greece, Spain – and save money for a move to New York City,” he says. Moreover, the Disney experience “helped me understand the magic they create.”
Magic, of course, figures prominently in the story of “Aladdin.” Set in the middle-eastern town of Agrabah, the tale involves a forbidden love story between Aladdin, a street urchin, and Princess Jasmine, daughter of the ruling sultan; a struggle for power between that sultan and his adversary, Jafar; and a magic lamp with a genie able to grant three wishes. There also is the fabled flying carpet.
The stage musical is based on the 1992 Academy Award-nominated Disney film and centuries-old folktales, including “One Thousand and One Nights.” Most recently, Disney released a live-action film starring Will Smith as the genie.
While it may be easier to portray magic in an animated or even in a live action film, the genie and his powers are recreated on stage and, Jennings assures us, “The magic carpet does fly, multiple times. Lots of theatrical magic is created.”
There are, however, a couple alterations. In film, Jafar always has a parrot, Iago, sitting on his shoulder. On stage, Iago is portrayed as a human sidekick.
Aladdin’s monkey, Abu, also takes human form as a trio of Aladdin’s friends: Babkak, Omar and Kassim; Jennings also understudies Kassim.
The changes aren’t detractions, in Jennings’ opinion. “They take you to a different level of understanding who this character is.”
But he emphasizes that storytelling is a key ingredient, along with an award-winning score.
“There is a true-love story that is beautiful,” he says. “There also is a story about change, and a story about believing in yourself, who you truly are. Don’t put on a façade.”
He points to Aladdin’s wish that the genie turn him into a prince to impress Jasmine, only to find out Jasmine prefers the Aladdin she knew from the streets, “this real, down-to-earth person,” Jennings says.
Worldwide, more than 10 million people have seen the stage show, and when it was on Broadway, starting in 2014, it broke 14 house records at the New Amsterdam Theatre, where it continues to play.
The film score was honored with two Oscars, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, “A Whole New World.” The music was written by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and features songs with lyrics by Oscar and Tony Award-winners Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Tony nominee Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the book for the stage production.
Disney’s “Aladdin” plays Oct. 29 through Nov. 10 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St. Tickets are available at the box office in the theater, by calling 401-421-ARTS (2787) or online at ppacri.org. Nov. 6 is BankNewport Family Night; patrons who purchase a regularly priced ticket to the 7 p.m. performance receive a complimentary ticket of equal value for a young person up to age 18. Family Night tickets are available only at the box office or by phone.