Hoopla

'Disney's Aladdin' grants wishes for lead actress, costume designer

Deen van Meer photos

The men of Agrabah fly through the air during “Arabian Nights” in “Disney’s Aladdin.” The national tour of the hit Broadway musical is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center from Nov. 28 to Dec. 9.
Deen van Meer photos The men of Agrabah fly through the air during “Arabian Nights” in “Disney’s Aladdin.” The national tour of the hit Broadway musical is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center from Nov. 28 to Dec. 9.
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Lissa deGuzman gets to sparkle every time she steps into Princess Jasmine’s shoes and veils, thanks to Gregg Barnes.

He’s the Tony-winning costume designer for Broadway’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2006 and “Follies” in 2011, as well as the color-drenched “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Elf the Musical” and “Kinky Boots,” past Radio City Christmas Spectaculars and other high-profile productions.

Iowa audiences will get to see how Barnes, 62, has bedazzled his way through “Disney’s Aladdin” on Broadway and on the road, when the national tour’s magic carpet ride flies into the Des Moines Civic Center for 16 performances Wednesday through Dec. 9.

“I’m really attracted to color and I love things that give light, that share light. I think that it has a kind of magic to it. And of course, ‘Aladdin’ is the perfect project for that,” Barnes, said by phone from his studio, next door to his apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. “My commute is about 8 feet,” he quipped.

“Aladdin,” based on Disney’s 1992 animated hit movie, tells the story of a desert princess and a pauper who bring color, adventure and romance into each other’s world — along with a wish-granting genie, an evil royal adviser and his wisecracking macaw who plot to steal the Sultan’s throne.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw told Barnes early-on that he wanted the palace scene “to feel like the finale section of the boat ride of ‘It’s a Small World’ in Disneyland.”

Barnes knew exactly what Nicholaw meant. The two California natives spent their childhoods in that park. “I knew that he wanted a glittering, very pale world, so I went there with a vengeance,” Barnes said. “You certainly get a lot of sparkle.”

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The Cave of Wonders, where Aladdin finds the genie’s lamp and a hidden treasure, also gave Barnes a place to shine. Building off the notion that when the darkness is lifted, revealing the treasure, “it’s gleaming, it’s glinting, it’s dazzling, so we really went there in that section, as well.”

Conversely, in the marketplace, the design team stayed away from shiny metal.

“It’s all done with a very vibrant color,” Barnes said, in a nod to the casbah in Morocco where shoppers find large urns and barrels full of colorful spices like henna and turmeric — “all the spices of an exotic place.”

“Amazingly, back to the animation, we found that when we got it all on paper, we really were in some way honoring the palette of the film, which I loved,” Barnes said. “Without being a literal translation, it’s a nice bow to the work that the beautiful animation did originally.”

DeGuzman, 25, a Waukesha, Wis., native now based in New York, has three looks in the show: Jasmine’s iconic blue outfit for palace daywear, a marketplace disguise and her wedding attire, which she described as “amazing, detailed pink skirts with a veil — all just beautifully beaded and sparkly and catches the light in all the right ways.”

CHARACTER STUDY

Jasmine is a princess determined to shatter her royal mold.

“She’s confined to her palace walls at the beginning of the show,” deGuzman said, “and she has this desire to break out and get out of the palace, so she does. She then gets swept up in marketplace chaos, and is thrust into what she wants. She has discoveries, and experiences new things and new people and different kinds of people. That brings out new questions and confirms why she wanted to get out and why she wanted to learn more. It gives her more of a strength, and that makes her fight for something. It confirms for her that love never fails and love will prevail.”

The actress loves the character’s strength.

“She is a joy to be every night,” deGuzman said. “She’s a fearless woman who has this curiosity that propels her into new experiences. She speaks her mind and never settles. ... She’s not willing to (bow to) her father’s word or others putting their standards on her. I really appreciate that she knows what’s right for her and has a forward-thinking part of her mind.”

After serving as an understudy for various female roles, deGuzman became Jasmine full-time in August. Audiences won’t see a carbon-copy of the animated film Jasmine. The directors gave her some latitude to make the iconic character her own. The stage version also makes a few tweaks, but follows the movie “pretty well,” she said. “It has every moment and every song you want, plus more.”

Having creative latitude from the very beginning is something Barnes embraced, as well.

DESIGN PROCESS

His starting point with designing a show varies.

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“Sometimes you’re hired before the book is fully fleshed out,” he said. “In the early stages of every project, I try to just be a good listener to whoever I’m interacting with — it could be the producer, it could be the director, or it could be the other designers on the team — just to not come to the table with too many preconceived notions about how I might want to visualize the evening.

“Not that I don’t have that — those things kick in as soon as you start reading or exploring the environment of the play. But that way, it makes me a good collaborator, because I’m not trying to force my personal taste until that becomes appropriate and the world of the play starts to get narrowed down by all of the collaborators, not just by my own ego,” he said with a laugh.

Disney didn’t try to dictate the look of the play, either, for which he’s grateful.

“In the case of ‘Aladdin,’ we had so many ways we could have approached it. One thing I love about Disney is that they are not strictly tied to the animation. They want you to honor the spirit of film, but they never ever say, ‘Copy this exactly.’ That’s never in the discussion. In fact, the more you can think outside the box, the happier they are. That’s a blessing in approaching this kind of a project.”

That doesn’t mean audiences familiar with the film will see a whole new world. But from a designer’s point of view, since Agrabah is a fictional city set in a non-specified desert, Barnes was free to incorporate elements of cloth and clothing from various realms.

“I made little research files from the Cotton Club, Hollywood kitsch, the Victorian Orientalists movement,” as well as garments from around northern Africa.

“I just developed all these different ways of looking at the piece, and did study the animation, as well,” he said. “If you take an 8-year-old or a 5-year-old to the show, when Princess Jasmine emerges out of the crowd, you want to serve their princess fantasies. It would be a misfire if you didn’t get that little rush of recognition.

“We put all that in a blender, and out comes — after three years of process — the finished visions for that piece.”

Executing his designs is no easy feat. For “Aladdin,” which opened on Broadway in 2014, people in 28 shops in New York and other cities created the countless costume pieces.

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“There was a lot of communicating and liaising to get all the parts to come together and look unified, to have every bead be a unified whole, total picture,” he said.

Since going international with “Aladdin” in Japan in 2015, Disney has opened a fabric store next to the New Amsterdam Theatre where the show is running in New York.

An entire floor is dedicated to the fabrics and beads needed to create and maintain the costumes for all the various Disney troupes presenting the show around the globe, “so we have control over every production worldwide,” he said. “It’s quite an endeavor.”

If a belt requires 14 kinds of beads, workers in New York might count out 46 of one kind and 1,000 of another, and mail a packet to the producing company, he said.

Finding the fabrics in the first place leads him on a merry chase.

The D & D Building in New York is one of his go-to places. Even though it’s a source for interior decorators, Barnes can find fabrics imported from Venice, Paris, China and South America there. That was crucial in creating the global influence of clothing worn in a fabled city lying on the crossroads of the silk trade.

Some fabrics also were digitally custom printed or hand painted.

“It was a real search,” he said. “Sometimes you find the perfect thing, but there’s only four yards and we need 400, so then you’re off on a journey to find out where the other 396 yards of fabric you need are.

“If it doesn’t exist, can you get it made, can you find the mill that made it, and will they remake it for you. Maybe you need a thousand yards made — that’s their lowest inventory that they’ll make new, so will this show be a hit? Will we be able to use a thousand yards of fabric?

“So there’s a lot that goes into the fabrics. It’s fun — it’s like a chase,” he said.

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A show this size doesn’t leave him time to be hands-on in creating the final products. “You have to lead and not be a foot soldier on a project of this scale,” he said.

PEER RECOGNITION

His “Aladdin” costume designs have won awards in London and Australia, as well as a nomination for an Outer Critics Circle Award in New York. His work on eight other shows has garnered Tony nods and two wins, but no matter how good that feels, he’s not comfortable being alone onstage, looking out at his peers.

“You have in your fantasy world, how it’ll be. Then there’s the reality of what it actually is. It’s so terrifying that sometimes you find yourself praying, ‘Don’t say my name, don’t say my name,’ but I wouldn’t give them back for the world,” he said with a laugh.

“The actual speechifying is funny, because often they hold (the Tonys) at Radio City Music Hall. I used to design the Christmas show, so I worked on that stage for a decade — but I never stood on it and looked out at 6,000 seats. That’s different from being in the dark at the technical table.

“Obviously, it’s a bucket-list thing to be in that little club, so I’m very, very honored.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Disney’s Aladdin” national tour

Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines

When: Nov. 28 to Dec. 9; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28, 30, Dec. 4 to 7; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29, Dec. 1, 8; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 2, 9 (no performance Dec. 3)

Tickets: $40 to $150; Civic Center Box Office, (515) 246-2300 or Desmoinesperformingarts.org

Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; recommended for ages 6 and up

Online: Aladdinthemusical.com

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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