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MANILA, Philippines – To borrow a line from the theme song of Disney’s Aladdin, it’s “a whole new world” for Tom Rodriguez and K-La Rivera as they take on the lead roles in the Atlantis stage production of the animated classic in November.
Tom is Aladdin and K-La is Princess Jasmine in the timeless tale of a street-smart commoner whose life dramatically changes with one rub of a magic lamp. Chosen by Disney Theatricals to stage the Asian premiere of Disney’s Aladdin, Atlantis Productions already mounted two other Disney full-length musicals in the past, Disney’s Beauty and The Beast in 2005 and Disney’s The Little Mermaid last year.
A few days before plunging into the rehearsals which begin this week, The STAR had a chat with Tom, 25, and K-La, 21, about the firsts they’re going to make by doing this project.
With zero background in theater, casting Tom might be quite the surprise to the followers of theater. Then again, maybe not — what with Atlantis Productions’ casting record. The outfit has been putting together stars and theater stalwarts on stage to great success.
But the theater greenhorn is actually a fan of musical theater, albeit a late-bloomer. The Fil-Am Tom said, “When I was in the States, I wasn’t really into theater. It was my Ate who was addicted to theater. She would stalk Lea Salonga in New York (Broadway). One time we went to Vegas, my Ate’s treat. I wanted to watch all the magic shows, but she said she wanted to watch the Phantom of the Opera. I complained that musicals were boring. That was really my attitude towards musical theater.”
But her elder sister’s choice prevailed for obvious reasons. “I remember reacting ang pangit ng upuan natin, may chandelier sa harapan. Then, when the show started, yun pala yung (Phantom centerpiece) chandelier biglang gumalaw at tumaas. I fell silent. After I watched Phantom, my attitude towards theater changed.
“I then started watching musical theater shows, mostly here. The recent plays I watched were In The Heights, Rock of Ages, Charlie Brown, Sound of Music, etc. I’ll be watching Phantom again and The King & I.”
Tom said theater affords the audience a different experience from cinema. “I don’t know why but even with all the special effects of Hollywood films, I find the theater experience as more immersive — maybe because it’s live.”
His growing fascination with musical theater, plus the egging of friends, gave him the confidence to audition for the first time for Atlantis for its Rock of Ages which ran last June.
“When I’d watch musicals, I’d tell myself I don’t think I could do it because in theater, there’s no take two. But when an audition for Rock of Ages came up, my friends were telling me to try it out. I don’t know what I ate that day, but I felt brave enough to audition. When I got there, I saw so many people! I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’”
His audition piece was no less than Think of Me from The Phantom. “However, I was wracked by nerves that I forgot the lyrics in front of (Atlantis’) direk Bobby Garcia and direk Chari Arespacochaga. They even fed me the lyrics. I’ve never experienced that being nervous in my whole life. Sablay talaga. After that experience, I told myself I would never do this again.”
That is until, the Aladdin auditions were held. “I was asked if I’d like to audition and while I was nervous again, I thought this was Aladdin! This was my only favorite Disney film, aside from Lion King. So, bahala na.
“When I was in front of direk Chari and direk Bobby again, they said, ‘It’s you again! So what are you going to sing?’ I said A Whole New World. And they said, ‘How original!’ (Laughs) That got me nervous again.”
But he went ahead, and one callback after, he secured his first-ever theater project — and in the lead at that.
Until now, Tom can’t believe he earned the part. “Even when I told my sister, she couldn’t believe it. Even my mom couldn’t believe it, in the same way they couldn’t believe I’m now singing.”
What’s really interesting with Tom’s story is that he never had any formal vocal training. He only discovered that he could carry a tune through ABS-CBN’s ASAP. Tom got into showbiz through the 2009 edition of Pinoy Big Brother, upon the prodding of his sister and mom who religiously watch The Filipino Channel. He recalled that during the first round of the PBB auditions in the States, he was asked what he could do — could he sing, dance or act? Tom answered he could paint. (He studied digital animation in college.)
After that first round, faced with the probability that he might not make it (and the fear of disappointing his family), he vowed to himself that if he would make it to the next round, he would sing, dance and act if he would be asked to.
And that’s pretty much how he is handling his career right now. “Palakasan na ng loob, sa bahay na lang ako mahihiya,” laughingly said Tom, who has shown great potential to be a male lead in the small and big screens since making an impression with his roles in the movies Here Comes The Bride, Temptation Island, etc. His current TV project is Be Careful With My Heart where he is the “love interest” of Aiza Seguerra’s character. He was supposedly signed on for a single appearance, but it got extended because viewers are loving their unconventional pairing. Tom will also be co-hosting a show on ABS soon.
K-La, on the other hand, was personally handpicked to play Princess Jasmine, her first lead role. This after earning raves for her theater debut via In The Heights last year and which enjoyed a repeat run early this year.
According to theater critic Gibbs Cadiz, K-La is a perfect fit for theater, has a beautiful singing voice and reminds him of a young Monique Wilson.
Another compliment that the half-Filipina, half-Romanian beauty, who grew up in Canada, really appreciates was that of her In The Heights “mother” Jackielou Blanco, who told her that she had the voice of an angel.
Her initial theater foray also merited her an acting nod. “I think just getting nominated as Best Actress in a Musical for Aliw Awards sobrang masaya ako dun, I didn’t expect that at all. Even if I didn’t win, I still feel honored,” the sweet-faced K-La said.
She’s not spared from criticism though. And being a newbie, she welcomes it with a thank-you and a smile. “It’s constructive criticism, siempre it’s okay.”
For example, she is aware that she needs to shed off a few pounds for her costumes as Princess Jasmine, and she’s trying her best to do so by getting a personal trainer.
K-La also said that in the musical they “will be singing all the songs from the movie, but there are more. Kokonti lang kasi yung nasa movie version. The songs that were added are beautiful and which are from the same composer, (the Oscar-winning) Alan Menken.”
Another thing to watch out for in Aladdin is the magic carpet ride. K-La said Atlantis will be bringing in technical people from the US to help execute the carpet ride, which is one of the iconic scenes in the movie.
As for the possibility of being compared to Lea Salonga, who was the voice of Princess Jasmine in the Disney movie, K-La said, “There will never ever be another Lea Salonga, and with her being the original Princess Jasmine, I don’t think there will ever be a more perfect version of A Whole New World. It’s a song I grew up singing on karaoke, and now for me to be able to sing it on stage portraying the role of Princess Jasmine, it’s something I am just ecstatic about and I cannot wait to start. I’ll do my best to make her proud.”
In between In The Heights and Aladdin, K-La released a six-song album under Star Records. Discovered via the ABS singing search Star Power, K-La has not been in any regular TV project though.
But she’s not one to complain. “I’m willing to do TV acting and movies. I think the proper opportunity will come. Sana may chance! I’m taking acting workshops (at ABS-CBN). I’m also trying to learn to speak more Tagalog. I have a tutor. Baka yun lang yung problem ko for the teleserye or movies,” K-La said.
“I’m happy (at how my career is going). I think I’m pretty lucky with everything that’s happening in my career so far. I just hope that I can expand it more. That would be really nice.”
Meanwhile, Aiza Seguerra and Calvin Millado also form part of the cast, alternately portraying the genie in the lamp. Aladdin features music by eight-time Oscar winner Menken, with lyrics from Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, both also Oscar winners, and Tony-nominated lyricist Chad Beguelin, who wrote the brand-new book of the musical.
In a statement, Atlantis Productions head Bobby Garcia said, “We are thrilled to continue our relationship with Disney Theatricals with their brand-new stage musical Disney’s Aladdin, which recently premiered in the US. We are looking forward to recreating the enchanting world of Agrabah and the romantic Arabian nights where Aladdin and Princess Jasmine take flight on their magic carpet ride. We have gathered an exciting cast for the show. We can’t wait to begin.”
For details, call Atlantis at 892-7078 or click here.