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Disney’s Aladdin Comes to Columbus

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Disney’s Aladdin Comes to ColumbusZach Bencal (on the left) in Aladdin. Photo by Deen van Meer.
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Disney’s stage adaptations of their animated musicals are surefire crowd-pleasers. That trend continues when the national tour of Aladdin rolls into town this month. I spoke with Zach Bencal who originated the role of Babkak on this, the first national tour, including Columbus, by phone from the Atlanta stop on the tour.

Bencal’s infectious enthusiasm was apparent over the phone as he reinforced the adage to make the most of every opportunity because you don’t know who’s watching. “It’s the first national tour and my big break. I didn’t originally audition for the role; I auditioned for School of Rock and made it really far. I didn’t end up getting it, but it was the same casting company. An associate passed my name along based on that.”

Once Bencal was auditioning for Aladdin, “[The auditions were] a month-long process with six different callbacks. The final callback was in front of about 30 members of the Disney creative team; it was quite an intense day, for sure.”

“There are three friends in the show, Babkak, Omar, and Kassim, and they’re kind of his gang of buddies. They’re his street-rat friends who are like the three stooges. They brought all the guys up for the friends in [on that day] and they were mixing and matching.  So we all got to see our competition with the Disney creative team watching us. So you kind of go in blackout mode, tunnel vision; just do the best you can. It was crazy.”

Aladdin in Columbus

Lissa deGuzman as Jasmine and Clinton Greenspan at Aladdin in the North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer.

Before that call came, Bencal said, “I was at a place in life where friends were calling me ‘the callback king.’ I’d get far but never seal the deal. By the time Aladdin came, I was at a place in my life of, ’I’m going to do the best that I can, make the choices that I think are right, and not worry about it.’ I wasn’t going to let anything phase me and I was in that mentality through the casting process.” That mentality paid off.

Talking about his character, “The three friends were all written for the movie, in the original concept by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. They were writing Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin all at the same time. After The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Howard Ashman passed away [in 1991]. They made some changes to the storyline: they cut Aladdin’s Mom, they cut some music, and they decided to consolidate the personalities of the friends into Abu. So you can see glimmers of each of our personalities in that little monkey.”

That meant new-to-the-world songs and comedy get their first airing through this stage version. “Alan Menken said if they were adapting the show to the stage, they wanted to honor Howard’s original vision; to revisit these three characters and flesh them out some more. We sing two big numbers in the show and both of them are original Howard Ashman lyrics, which is pretty cool. They were just kind of locked in the Disney vault.”

Babkak presented an interesting challenge, playing a character from a beloved musical a generation grew up in that the audience doesn’t already know. Bencal said, “I have so many conversations daily where people get really upset about the monkey, but it’s written so well that people get behind this concept right away. Some people have said they forget there was that [earlier] character. These three guys are really fun and we get a lot of wonderful opportunities to make the audience laugh with a slapstick-y ‘Larry, Curly, and Moe’ vibe. Once audiences get behind [the change], people love it.”

Scene from ‘Friend Like Me’. Micheal James Scott as Genie with Ensemble in the North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer.

Aladdin stops at the Ohio Theatre (39 E. State St.) Oct. 24 through Nov. 4. For showtimes, tickets, and more info, visit capa.com.

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