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James Monroe Iglehart

THEATER: Talent You Won’t Forget

  • February 26, 2014

By Felicia R. Lee
Staff Writer, New York Times

James Monroe Iglehart, who is preparing to play Genie in “Aladdin” on Broadway, has craved applause since the age of 5, when he brought down the house — his family’s Baptist church in Hayward, Calif. — with a song about salvation called “Bullfrogs and Butterflies.”

He flirted with the idea of being a professional wrestler, until discovering that the blood was real. A flair for comedy and a love of music made acting a natural choice. And he has wanted to play Genie since hearing Robin Williams voice the character in the 1992 animated film.

Now 39, bald and stocky (six feet, 298 pounds), with a goatee and hoop earrings, he’s gotten that shot in this Disney production, the first Broadway staging of one of its animated successes since “The Little Mermaid,” which, along with “Tarzan,” stopped a hit streak that included “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Mr. Iglehart worked steadily in regional theater and elsewhere after graduating from California State University, Hayward. His big break was originating the role of Bobby in the Tony-winning musical “Memphis,” in 2009. Genie should provide an even brighter spotlight and “a chance for more people to know who I am,” he said recently at the New Amsterdam Theater, where previews begin Feb. 26 for a March 20 opening.

Casey Nicholaw, the show’s director and choreographer, said the Genie character in the movie was “originally drawn and based on Cab Calloway” before Robin Williams signed on to do the voice. “James is the perfect combination of Cab Calloway and Robin Williams,” Mr. Nicholaw said.

Disney’s newest Genie is married to Dawn Iglehart, a molecular biologist. They chill out by watching the TV show “Maury,” known for its squabbles over DNA tests to prove paternity. “We are the silliest people,” he said.

They don’t have children but are helping to rear his five nieces and nephews, ages 12 to 20. They live in Hayward and keep a New York apartment.

To make the character his own, Mr. Iglehart said he drew on childhood memories of being bullied (“I was a sensitive kid”) and easing the sting with jokes and music.

“Genie wants to be free, but he loves the attention, he loves show business,” Mr. Iglehart said. “The only way he can cope with being imprisoned is to make it into a performance. Once I looked at it like that, I realized Genie is a lot like me.”

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