Aladdin's Philippe Arroyo
September 30, 2018
The National Tour of Aladdin is just as grand and impressive as one would expect. The show is packed with bright, glittering, gilded costumes, large, jaw-dropping sets, and catchy, uplifting songs. The most impressive part of Aladdin, however, is the incredible talent of the cast. Everyone from Aladdin to the ensemble members perform long, complicated ensemble numbers that require them to sing, run about the stage, and dance complex, high-energy routines all at the same time. In the spotlight of these numbers are Aladdin and his three best friends: Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. Recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate Philippe Arroyo plays Omar, Aladdin’s sweet best friend, and I got the chance to talk to him on his day off. The tour just wrapped up its run here in Pittsburgh where it played at the Benedum Center.
Aladdin the musical is based on the famous 1992 animated Disney movie. Both the movie and the musical tell the story of a young street urchin with a heart of gold, the “diamond in the rough,” Aladdin.
Arroyo’s character, Omar, is not a character from the movie and many of the songs he sings including “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” “High Adventure,” and “Somebody’s Got Your Back” were either cut from the movie and restored for the Broadway show or written newly for the Broadway show. Omar is a source of comedy throughout the show and easy to spot in his all blue costume. Arroyo’s performance is oozing with boyish charm that clearly differentiates Omar from the food-obsessed Babkak and strong-willed Kassim. He’s tall and athletically built with dark hair and dark eyes. He is a delight to watch on stage because he’s incredibly talented and so clearly loves what he’s doing. During “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” Arroyo and the other men dance across the Agraba marketplace and tap out rhythms on brightly colored hand-held drums. It’s a show-stopping number that leaves the audience cheering for more.
During “High Adventure,” Babkak, Omar, and Kassim go marching across the stage defeating royal guards with swings of their swords. It’s another long number that puts the actors’ talent and high energy on display. During the number, Omar never seems fully aware of what he’s doing, just happening to lift his sword as he’s being attacked from behind.
Arroyo says about his character, “Omar is one of Aladdin’s three closest friends, and they’re kind of like the three Stooges. They’ve all got their own personality traits. Omar is more of the peace-maker, the sensitive poet. He’s got a ‘lover not a fighter’ energy about him. At the same time, he is very scared. I like to think that when he’s put in a fight, you know, he’s stronger than he thinks. He’ll accidentally hit someone. When he wins in a fight it’s almost an accident. He’s much stronger than he’s even aware, and I’ve always loved that idea.”
Arroyo’s conscientious acting decisions are apparent on stage. Arroyo alters his voice; Omar’s voice is a little higher, innocent, and more nasal than Arroyo’s own rich voice. It’s hard to determine which of the musical theater trifecta – acting, singing, dancing – Arroyo is most talented at because he is so skilled at each.
Arroyo grew up in Palm City, Florida where he did theater as a kid. During his junior year of high school, he decided that he wanted to pursue theater professionally. He knew that it was a difficult career path, but he was persistent in pursuing it. Carnegie Mellon University’s prestigious musical theater program was his number one choice, and, on his birthday, he found out that he had been accepted. “My parents are both in the medical field, and my older brother is a mechanical engineer, and so they were a little concerned. But once I got in places, they realized that I could do it. When I found out I got into CMU I ran through the halls of my high school screaming,” he recalls. He ran straight to his chorus teacher to report the news.
He enjoyed his time at CMU and in Pittsburgh and was happy to be back last month on tour. “I spent my transformative years in Pittsburgh and learned a lot. Having seen shows at the Benedum while I was in school makes performing on its stage so much more personal and special. I hadn’t known that Pittsburgh was a scheduled tour stop, and I was happy when I found out we’d get to be performing here.”
Arroyo is cheerful and easy to talk to. He has ready answers for everything, and almost every story he tells delights him. He has an infectious laugh and uses it freely. When he tells a story, he tells it so vividly that it’s like being there in the moment with him. He has a lyrical voice and an inviting way of talking that draws you into the conversation. He’s funny, sincere, and jokes as he tells his stories.
While he was at CMU, Arroyo participated in CMU’s completely student-run theater festival of new works called “Playground.” In addition to acting in Playground’s shows, he even wrote one. “It was a fluke,” he says. “Honestly, I think it was a one-time thing. I had this really vivid dream one night and just sat down and wrote it. But “Playground” was one of the best experiences, and it’s open to the whole campus. I just think it’s an incredible opportunity. I don’t have any plans to do more writing, but I’d love to write again if I get another inspirational dream.”
After graduating in 2015, Arroyo was cast in the National Tour of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s epic musical based on the Grimm Brothers’ and Charles Perrault’s famous fairytales. All of the different fairytales converge together to tell a tale of caution through song. The show is darker than Aladdin and is not as dance-heavy. Arroyo played Jack from the Jack and Beanstalk fairytale.
Arroyo had been in New York “waiting for a gig” and happened to audition for both Into the Woods and Aladdin at the same time. He found out that he’d landed the role of as Jack in Woods and then found out that he’d been cast as Omar in Aladdin. Instead of deciding to just do a single show, Arroyo set to work to see if it would be possible for him to do both. He would have to leave the Into the Woods tour six months early, which is “usually a no-no,” he says. When he told the Woods production team, they told him that they would look for another actor to play Jack, but within a month, the team came back and said that they hadn’t found another actor they liked as much as him. They decided to give him the role despite his restraints and allow him to leave the tour early. Arroyo negotiated to have three days off in February before starting Aladdin so that he could attend his older brother’s wedding.
When he talks about his experience with both Woods and Aladdin, it’s clear that he has loved his time with both productions. He describes the culture of both tours as being families, having a strong bond that comes from touring across the country in busses and staying in hotels together in addition to performing together every night.
While Arroyo was sad to leave Woods, he loves Aladdin. The movie was his favorite animated Disney movie, and even though he’s been with the show for about a year and a half, it hasn’t lost its magic for him. He’s in awe of the costumes and the number of costume changes that can take place in a single number. He takes a few minutes to praise the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, and describe the intricate detail in every single costume: the Swarovski jewels, the amount of work that went into it, the careful fit. He says that being backstage is like watching a show in itself. He’s under contract with Aladdin for a while and wants to stay on longer but would also love to make his Broadway debut.
He tells me that in the future he’d love to perform as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. He says that he’s been told that he looks too young and then makes a self-deprecating joke that he’s just waiting to age. When I tell him that he doesn’t look too young for the role he good-naturedly teases me about calling him “old” which I vehemently reject until we’re both laughing over the phone.
Arroyo is a talented performer and one that we hope to see in Pittsburgh again soon. Be sure to see Philippe in Disney’s Aladdin!
Follow Philippe on Instagram.