July 18--There have been a lot of echoes of the early 1990s in Jonathan Freeman's life lately, and the one that has brought the Tony-nominated Broadway actor to Chatham also has connections even further back in his performing career.
Freeman is currently a guest director at Monomoy Theatre, so he is working again with Alan Rust, artistic director there. They knew each other at Ohio University in the early 1970s, and Freeman shares connections with others from that school who have worked at Monomoy over the decades, too. What Freeman was asked to direct this summer is the first-ever Monomoy production of "She Loves Me," which got him a Tony nomination as the Headwaiter in a 1993 Broadway revival.
The musical is the stage version of the story about two arguing co-workers who don't realize the anonymous pen pals they're falling in love with are each other -- also the basis for the films "The Shop Around the Corner" and "You've Got Mail." Freeman had not been involved with "She Loves Me" in two decades, but after getting the Chatham job, he was also asked -- completely separately -- to reprise the Headwaiter role for a concert version of the show earlier this summer at Caramoor Summer Music Festival in New York.
And soon after he leaves Cape Cod, Freeman will start rehearsals for a musical that returns him to another part of his past -- the character that he has played the most often over the years and that has gained him the widest fame: Disney villain Jafar from 1992's "Aladdin."
That animated movie is the latest Disney story to become a live musical, and Freeman says he will be the first actor to take his Disney character from voiced for the screen to live on Broadway. Freeman played Jafar when the stage musical was being developed two years ago in Seattle and recently signed on to continue playing that role -- first in Toronto this fall, then on Broadway in 2014. The evil Jafar is a role only he has ever voiced or played in more than 20 years of movies, video games, stage shows and theme park rides.
"It's probably one of the longest jobs anyone's had in show business, and I'll do it for as long as I can," Freeman says in an interview at Monomoy's Chatham campus. "For me, personally, this will be a way to complete part of the circle, I guess."
Just as he's completing different kinds of circles in working again with people from his Ohio University days and returning to "She Loves Me."
In the past few weeks, he's been concentrating most on memories of that show, which in its Tony-nominated revival was what Freeman calls "pretty nearly a perfect production, I believe. ... It sort of created a kind of yardstick for me." He notes that many musical-theater aficionados put this show near the top of lists of best musicals ever written.
The reasons? Freeman cites its beautiful and elaborate score by Jerry Boch and Sheldon Harnick, but also its unusual setting of Budapest in the 1930s, a halcyon time before the war that he's trying to help re-create at Monomoy through photographs he's found online. There's also the show's strong, romantic story by Joe Masteroff, he says, with characters you come to care about.
"Every one of the primary characters is a great part. I'd like to play any one of them -- even the women," Freeman says. "And the play is about something: that you never really know where you're going to find love."
The invitation to hear the score performed by a 30-piece orchestra -- the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Caramoor -- ended up being good preparation to direct at Monomoy, and Freeman says he soaked in how the other actors for that concert performed their roles as he was reprising the Headwaiter. That character has one key scene in the final 20 minutes of the first act. It's when the shopgirl thinks she will be meeting her pen pal at a cafe and the waiter, who sings "A Romantic Atmosphere," works to make it all right. There's also, Freeman says, "a moment at the end of the scene that will break your heart."
Directing "She Loves Me" has been a challenge, but Freeman says he's neither trying a very different spin to put his own mark on the show or to re-create what was done so successfully on Broadway. "I wouldn't not take something (from another production) if I thought it was good," he says mischievously with a smile. "It's just that my memory is not that good."
Freeman has been happy to revisit "She Loves Me" and his Headwaiter character this summer, but notes that the "revisit" term isn't the right one to use when talking about his next stage project. Because he's continued to voice and play Jafar for various "Aladdin"- and Disney-related projects over the years, he's never truly left the character.
Freeman had grown up loving the hand-drawn Disney animation, and actually dreamed of being a Disney villain. No handsome prince for him, he says. Villains got the superior skills -- maybe magic, but certainly power -- and just were created on a grander scale than heroes.
He auditioned for the role in 1990.
"I went for it. I knew that I could create the villain they were looking for."
Freeman did voice and singing work for 21 months as the story, music and art were created. Animators incorporated his looks, gestures -- even his inhalations on lines -- into the character. That began two decades of working with such talented people as composer Alan Menken in Jafar-related and additional projects, and a Disney connection through much of Freeman's career.
Besides continued voice work for animation, three of the seven Broadway shows he's done in the past 20 years have been Disney projects: He originated Grimsby in "The Little Mermaid," and was a replacement for clock Cogsworth in "Beauty and the Beast" and Admiral Boom and the Bank President in "Mary Poppins." And now, again, he'll be Jafar.
"It's been a happy time," he says. "It's a lot of hard work, sure, but no one is more acutely aware of how lucky I've been. I feel very privileged.
"My dream came true," he adds, then smiles, "like in a real Disney movie."
Not that anyone, still, will recognize who he is, though. While he can easily summon up Jafar's deep tones, Freeman's normal voice has few traces of the character. His face has been anonymous behind animation, and when on stage, he has been -- and will be in the Broadway-bound show -- behind makeup and costuming.
And that's okay with him. Freeman tells a story of a night in Seattle when one woman at the stage door did actually realize he had played Jafar on stage and ran after him as he walked away. "You were wonderful," she told him. "You sounded just like the guy in the movie."
Um, yeah. But Freeman's only reply: "Thank you very much."
In conjunction with this year's 250th anniversary of Wellfleet's founding, Brenda Withers, ensemble member of Harbor Stage Company, has written an original piece about the town's history. "The Billingsgate Project: a meditation on being (lost and) founded," is described in a press release as being a piece "devised with the company" that "offers a surreal, compassionate look at a town's attempts to re-create the past and forecast the future."
The show is Harbor Stage's first full production of an original play. It runs through Aug. 10, and features the on-stage talents of Withers and other founding members Jonathan Fielding, Stacy Fischer and artistic director Robert Kropf. "The Billingsgate Project," according to the release, "follows a team of amateur historians as they try to piece together an evening of historical entertainment. Focusing on the early 20th-century dissolution of the once-thriving colony on Wellfleet's Billingsgate Island, the play will explore our culture's relationship with nostalgia, narrative, and authenticity, and consider the side effects that historical attachments can have on our contemporary lives."
The play was developed with grants from the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod and the Wellfleet Cultural Council. Its final show on Aug. 10 will take place at 5 p.m. so patrons can take part in the Wellfleet 250th Committee's townwide celebration and fireworks.
Tickets for the show are $20, with a pay-what-you-can night at 7:30 p.m. Friday, all at the Harbor Stage theater, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet. Reservations and more information: 508-349-6800 or www.harborstage.org.
For more theater news and commentary, check out Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll's blog at www.capecodonline.com/stagedoor and follow KathiSDCC on Twitter.
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