The magic carpet has taken J. Andrew “Jordan” Speas (‘21 BFA Theatre) to hundreds of cities in the United States and Canada, and on October 31st it will bring him to the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in Greensboro, North Carolina. Speas is on the North American Tour of Disney’s Aladdin, as standby for the roles of Sultan, Babkak, and Genie (which he’ll play in some of the Greensboro shows.)
“To do the role of Genie is a dream come true. I always hesitate to say that because it sounds kind of schmaltzy. But this is a twirling, dancing, singing, acting role for a plus-sized man. And as a person who has loved theatre since he was 10 years old, being able to do this role and exist on stage in that character is honestly beyond anything you could ever feel or believe until you experience it.
Genie really represents joy and light.”
Anyone who knows Speas would say the same about him. His smile is big and bright, and a conversation with him is filled with warmth, thoughtfulness, and lots of belly laughs. He breaks out into one of those while describing what happens when Genie appears on stage.
“I really get my cardio in! ESPN did a special on what your body goes through in this role, and they wrote that it’s like running five football fields. No one can quite conceive the rush it is to come out of the lamp. The energy that comes at you. The show starts with the song Arabian Nights and the audience is invited to the magical land of Agrabah and when Genie comes out of the lamp there is all this wind and you’re just at it for the entire rest of the show.”
Speas has the energy for the physical aspects of Genie, and he says he also connects with the character’s personality and spirit.
“What I love most about Genie is that he has the responsibility to aid in the journey of someone discovering how to be a better person. The Genie transcends so many things—race, barriers, ethical dilemmas that humans have in life, and he helps Aladdin see his faults and how to overcome them.
“There’s really something so beautiful about being able to see potential in another human being, and to help bring that out. We can’t always see the forest for the trees, sometimes we need guidance, and Genie is that guiding light in the show.”
There’s a bit of a parallel in Speas’ life—not a genie, but a professor at UNCG’s School of Theatre.
“I remember sitting in Erin Farrell Spear’s office my senior year when I was cast as the Leading Player in our production of Pippin. That was the first time I felt like I was a star vehicle, a person who helps carry and guide the show. Erin and I were talking about that, and she said, ‘When you graduate, we’re going to get you in for Aladdin’s Genie.’ I thought I’m not sure I’m ready for that. But Erin did. She saw my potential.”
Speas is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has been singing his whole life, and from age twelve, performed with the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. He started college at UNC School of the Arts studying Opera, then transferred to UNCG’s School of Theatre to pursue a degree that offered more acting training. Near the end of his college career, COVID shut down in-person auditions, and so his senior acting class was the first to do their Theatre Industry Showcase online. After graduation, he moved to New York.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Speas as he ticks through the ten months between leaving UNCG and landing the role in Aladdin. “I graduated in May of 2021, and moved to New York in October. I booked my first tour, Spamilton, in January. While I was out on that tour, I got the call from Tara Reubin Casting to audition for Aladdin. Within 24 hours of that audition, I received a call back from the associate director and the music director for the Broadway company.”
From there, Speas was sent to Genie bootcamp to see if he had the chops—and the stamina—for the role. In March of 2022, there was a final callback.
“It was pretty daunting. There I am standing in front of Broadway Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw and the Disney team. They were videotaping the audition, and they had to stop and offload the camera. So, I’m like what do I talk about in this downtime? Nerve-wracking! But when I did my Genie, I just gave them the real me. That’s one of the greatest things about this character is that I get to be a version of myself on stage.
“I thought maybe as a standby my job would be to mimic the person who holds the role full-time. Thankfully, I’m a great mimic, but they’ve given me the freedom to discover what my Genie is, and they really honor it. I would say I’m a very different Genie than others out there, and in a fun way. You know I’m a Southern man, with all the things that come with that.”
During the audition process, Speas turned to professors at his alma mater.
“When I got that associates call, the very first people I called were Erin, Dominick Amendum (Coordinator of the Musical Theatre Program), and April Hill (Voice) for coaching. We all got on Zoom—I was in my little New York apartment—and I said ‘Okay, here’s the material. What do I do with it?’
“Even after graduating, UNCG still has your back. I feel like I could call any one of my professors, especially from the School of Theatre, and say, ‘I need your thoughts on something. I need to know what the next step is. Can you help me understand this thing? I know we talked about it like 5 years ago in class, but now it’s making sense and I’m using it.’”
While Speas credits former teachers with seeing his potential, and like Genie, providing guidance, his brightest guiding light is his mother.
“My favorite song in Aladdin is Proud of Your Boy. When I first started rehearsing the show I would cry every time Adi Roy (Aladdin) sang it. It makes me think of my mom and all the rehearsals and auditions she would take me to and how she always made sure I had what I needed. You know my mom told me from the beginning that I should go to UNCG, and I’m glad I finally listened and wound up there. I’m just so thankful for my mother and for my community.”
Aladdin opens at the Tanger Center on October 31st and runs through November 5th.
Story by Terri W Relos
Photo provided by J. Andrew Speas