Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw possesses an irrepressibly joyful spirit. In fact, he might just be the happiest man in the Broadway musical constellation these days, with the possible exception, of course, of actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. And the fact that he can move through the world considerably more anonymously than Miranda is no doubt a big plus.
When: April 11 – Sept. 10
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $42 – $118
Consider the arc of the San Diego-bred Nicholaw’s career: After working as a dancer-actor in several Broadway shows, he won plaudits for his zany choreography for the Monty Python-inspired musical, “Spamalot,” directed by Mike Nichols, and his direction and choreography for ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.” He went on to co-direct (with Trey Parker) and choreograph “The Book of Mormon,” that mega-hit musical that reigned supreme until the arrival of “Hamilton.” More recently he directed and choreographed “Something Rotten!,” a zany romp set during Shakespeare’s time that ran on Broadway from 2015 to this past January, and is now being seen in a national tour that will stop at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre in July.
Amidst all this, Nicholaw made his first entrance into that magic kingdom known as Disney Theatricals, enjoying an extended ride on a magic carpet as the director and choreographer of “Aladdin,” the latest musical based on a Disney animated film. He has been with the show from its earliest incarnation in 2011, and since opening on Broadway in 2014 “Aladdin’s” global footprint has included productions in Tokyo, Hamburg, London and Sydney. The show still draws crowds in New York, but now Nicholaw is in Chicago rehearsing the first North American touring company of the musical that will kick off at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre on April 11, and has already been extended through Sept. 10.
During a recent rehearsal at the Germania Club Building — the ornate Gold Coast structure whose ballroom offers quite a change from the standard studios found in New York’s Times Square — Nicholaw was the very model of high energy and winning calm as he oversaw the show’s large cast running through the big opening number, “Arabian Nights” (complete with acrobatic male dancers, sexually playful young women and all the paraphernalia of a Middle Eastern bazaar), and a big second act number, “High Adventure,” full of daggers and comically macho derring-do.
Does Nicholaw ever give a thought to directing a two-character play with minimal scenery?
“No, no, not at all,” he said, laughing. “I love the big musicals and dance numbers. And with ‘Aladdin’ I’ve been there all through the journey, including in Tokyo, where the production was amazing. It was totally translated into Japanese, with each act about 10 minutes longer than in English, and it had spectacular craftsmanship, with genuine hand-painted gold leaf for the Cave of Wonders.”
With music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Newsies”), and lyrics by Howard Ashman (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”), Tim Rice (“Evita,” “Aida”), and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the show’s book), “Aladdin” has been adapted from the 1992 Academy Award-winning animated Disney film and the centuries-old folktales in “One Thousand and One Nights,” and it spins the familiar story of a poor young man who discovers a genie in a lamp and uses his wishes to marry the princess he loves and thwart the Sultan’s evil Grand Vizier. The score includes five songs from the film and many others created for the stage production.
“I saw the animated film the second it came out,” Nicholaw recalled. “But since I started working on the show I’ve stayed away from it. What is such fun is that while the other big Disney musicals, like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” are very female-centered, ‘Aladdin’ is more of a male-oriented action adventure story. And while it has a Middle Eastern vibe, there’s also something of the big American nightclub about it, too. We’ve not talked about politics in rehearsals. But the cast [which features Adam Jacobs, who originated the title role of Aladdin on Broadway, along with Anthony Murphy as the Genie,Isabelle McCalla as Princess Jasmine, and veteran Chicago actor Jonathan Weir as the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar] has every ethnicity in it. And the whole thing is playfully exotic – with the dance numbers borrowing from Bollywood and Greek and Turkish folk dance to pure musical comedy. It’s a show that is welcoming to everyone.”
Nicholaw and his creative team did try to “adult it up, so there are no talking animals in costumes, and we’ve aged up Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. In fact, for much of the first year of its run on Broadway the audience was made up of twentysomethings and others who had grown up with the film, and they saw it as a great date night out.”
“One tricky thing in moving from animation to the stage is finding the balance of bright colors,” said Nicholaw. “We have fabulous costumes thanks to Gregg Barnes, sets by Bob Crowley and lighting by Natasha Katz. And the shape-shifting of characters you can do in animation is now conjured by using changes in musical genres. The score for the show is fantastic – so buoyant, really gorgeous. But what I always keep in mind is Mike Nichols’ advice which was: ‘Everything needs to be based in truth’.”
Asked about the three wishes he would make were he to encounter a genie, Nicholaw said: “Well, last year I directed and choreographed a dream project – a production of ‘Dreamgirls’ that’s still running in London’s West End. And when we started work on ‘Aladdin’ I would have wished for its success. But now, as ridiculous as it might sound, I’d wish for world peace, and for human beings to just be nice to each other. I’d wish for the health and happiness of all my friends and family. And I’d also love to have a Lego set of the complete Disneyland.”
As for Nicholaw’s “next project,” it’s already in the works – a new musical based on “Mean Girls,” Tina Fey’s 2004 hit comedy film about a high school transfer student trying to navigate teenage social cliques. The show, with a score by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, will have its world premiere in Washington, D.C., in October. Nicholaw said he would have loved to try it out in Chicago, but no theater was available for the needed dates.