The journey of Jafar

Chicago actor Jonathan Weir plays the villain Disney's 'Aladdin'

People tell Jonathan Weir that he must be pretty good at playing Disney villains. But they may have a point.

So it goes for the Chicago-based actor who played Scar in “The Lion King,” on Broadway and on tour, and now is tasked with bringing Jafar to life as part of the national tour of, “Aladdin,” now at the Paramount Theatre through Oct. 29.

In between performances and exploring Seattle for the first time — “I’m still blown away when I turn a corner and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, the roads go up the hill, that’s amazing!’” he says — Weir sat down with the Queen Anne & Magnolia News to discuss his latest role.

What drew you to this role?

Weir: What drew me to this role? Employment. (laughs). I’ve worked for Disney on and off for 13 years doing, “The Lion King.” I did the second national tour that started in Chicago back in ’03, and did that for a year as a standby Scar and Pumba, and left and then over the years intermittently, Disney would call me to go out on the road, sub-in, and then the last three years, I went to New York three times to sub-in, so I got to do that experience, which was great.

What drew me to the role is I’m an actor and I like to work, I’m based in Chicago, been in Chicago for 30 years and primarily done a couple big production contracts, “The Lion King,” this, and, “Jersey Boys,” but have primarily — I consider myself and am proud to say a Chicago actor, Chicago-based, really a phenomenal theater community there, not unlike Seattle. So I had an audition last September, a call back a couple days later, and then like two weeks later found out I gotten the role.

You know, people always make jokes like, ‘Well, you played Scar, you must do the Disney villains well.’ That might’ve been your next question — not to preempt — but I’ve played some nice guys too, but as an actor these kind of experiences, this kind of, to be on a production contract to tour the country, and Disney does it right. It’s a long way of saying I’ve had a relationship with Disney that I never thought would be on-going this long. It’s a lovely company, it’s a phenomenal ensemble up there busting their butts every night, and so that what kind of all those things drew me to

So with this role — and in, “The Lion King,” — you’re bringing animated characters to life. What are the challenges of doing that?

Weir: Well they’re iconic, right? Everybody has an image, they’ve seen it. Jonathan Freeman, who originally voiced the animated feature, an did the subsequently all voices for Jafar in video games and everything else, and who originated the role and is still playing the role on Broadway, left an amazing map. I mean he’s phenomenal voice, so you know, the trappings are that you would just try to recreate what was on the animated feature, but we’re not doing the movie, we’re doing a live version of this. And the script is different. Interestingly enough, there’s a couple songs originally written by Alan Menken for the movie that because of timing they didn’t use and put them in the trunk, and then they pulled them out for this show. The trick is, well, the gift is that our associate director and our director encouraged us to make it our own. They didn’t want a mirror, this is their sixth production worldwide, this is the first tour production they’ve done, so they learned enough to let, I think wisely, let the actors bring themselves to the role as well. Of course there are iconic moments or iconic things but, when it’s somehow based in truth and connected to the actor, I think it resonates strongly for an audience, and we’ve had phenomenal reactions to the show.

How much creative license do you feel like you have with the character?

Weir: As in any process, or any project, you know, there are guardrails. We’re encouraged to keep it fresh within the parameters of the show as was directed, and we have, you know, latitude within reason. We currently have Don Darryl Rivera, who originated the role on Broadway with us here because he’s from here, so that’s a whole new cast member, and he’s my counterpart, and my counterpart is now filling in for him on Broadway, so it feels a little bit like you’re cheating, because you get so used to working with somebody eight shows a week. So that kind of thing, they have a little different production in New York, there’s a little different things there, as do we, so there’s some latitude and a sense of staying in the moment, staying present.

When you’re doing a national tour, how much if at all does the production change from one city to the next?

Weir: You ever see the movie, “Hoosiers?” When Gene Hackman says — the high school team goes to the state championship, and they’re at the big stadium and they’re freaking out and they’re looking at the stadium and all the surrounding, and he’s like, ‘Everything that happens here is the same size.’ So everything you see on stage, and this is a fully realized production, it’s actually enhanced from Broadway in many ways, so the audiences that come see it will not see in any sense a scaled-down production, it’s as lavish and lush and magical, if not more so, than what’s on Broadway.

Everything that happens on the stage itself is the same size, what changes is the backstage space from theatre to theatre, how much wing space we have, and we have an amazing crew who travel with us, and then we pick up local dressers and stage crew, hair and wig, in every city. And they just are amazing that they got this moved. It travels in total of 19 or 20 trucks, and they got it loaded in and set up and in front of an audience last night, and there we were, and they’re all adjusting to different patterns as well back stage, as are we, because it’s a tighter fit here than it was in Minneapolis and certainly than it was in Chicago.

Do you ever notice any differences in the audience from one city to the next?

Weir: Yeah, a little bit. Fortunately, the three cities we’ve played so far, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle are all great theatre towns. They have a great history. … Sometimes they can be a little polite, but until they are given permission and let into the production and they let themselves go, but for the most part, the show — my experience now six or seven months into it — is that the best thing is that, especially in our current times that we’re living in, you have in this case 3,000 people in an audience, laughing together, everything aside just having a good time, and coming along for the ride, and that’s highly satisfying and really rewarding and that’s been the experience pretty much in every city.

Any roles that you’ve done before that you feel you can lean on to help you in this one?

Weir: I’ve been doing this for 30 years and a career is a cumulative thing, right? We as actors acquire a lot of skillsets along the way, so yes, certainly, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some, and I sense a nuance of Scar here and there for example. But there are a couple other roles, I just played a production in Chicago, Shakespeare in Chicago called “King Charles III,” which was done in New York and originally in London, and this character was the press secretary, and he was one of those uptight British, all for the crown, some would say a jerk but I thought his intentions were noble, but there’s that kind of nuanced things we take from role to role.

This is your first time in Seattle, so how are you liking it so far?

Weir: I was here for seven hours, and I was like, I kind want to move here, but I won’t because everybody’s moving here so I know people are like, “No, don’t move.” I love it. I’m originally from the Midwest, I’ve lived on both coasts, and I went to grad school in Philadelphia, and Alabama, and traveled around, but I’ve been in Chicago for 30 years, and other than the lake it’s pretty flat. So I’m still blown away when I turn a corner and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, the roads go up the hill, that’s amazing!’

It’s beautiful, the vistas, the vibe is very chill, people seem very cool, unpretentious, open, so that’s been my experience so far. I’m really enjoying it, and I’ve shipped my bike here, so I’m getting assembled today, so I was thrilled to see this is fairly a bike city as it is. As a matter of fact it looks like the bikers have more power than the motorists in this city. I don’t know, I may be wrong, but it’s great, and I hope to get out and sample some of the food too. 

What’s your pitch to people reading this to go see this show?

Weir: My pitch to them to come see it is, it’s not just a kids’ show. I’m going to say that repeatedly. It’s not a kids’ show, it’s a show for your generation and above, actually, and kids love it, don’t get me wrong they love it, but there is something for the millennials, the 30s, who grew up with Aladdin and Jasmine as their Disney icons, right? There is, we get families that come, we have grown adults that are just guffawing and laughing and losing themselves in the story and having a great time. So that’s my first pitch.

My second pitch is that I think that this cast, as we currently have it, is one of the finest I’ve worked with. They’re committed, they’re giving their 100 percent every night, it’s beautifully sung, and I think even within the structure of the story it’s truthfully acted. And finally, there is so much visual stimuli in the show. Not only the Cave of Wonders, which is the, “Friend Like Me,” number, it’s, as I said earlier, nothing is skimped in terms of the production values here. A 20-piece orchestra that sounds amazing.

And a night out! Come out and see us.