‘Aladdin’s’ finery a work of magic, beadery and bling (preview)

April 29, 2018

‘Aladdin’s’ finery a work of magic, beadery and bling (preview)

Before he sketched 134 individual costume designs, each taking about six hours to complete, and found some 2,039 different fabrics from around the globe for the sartorial splendor that is “Aladdin,” Gregg Barnes once did a show at the Cleveland Play House. 

It was, says Barnes, “a million years ago,” in the 1994-95 season, when the company was still raising the curtain in its historic complex at 8500 Euclid Ave. In town as costumer for the Peter Shaffer comedy “Lettice and Lovage,” he wanted to grab a bite.

“There was a Burger King across the street, and somebody said, ‘You should really be careful going over there — it’s in not the best neighborhood,’ ” Barnes remembers. 

“I said, ‘Listen, I’m a New Yorker — I think can handle myself at the Burger King.’ ”

Despite his bravado, he “ran back” to the theater after visiting the home of the Whopper, says Barnes, laughing. “They planted a bad seed in my mind!”

His credits since then are bursting at the seams with critical successes and box office smashes: “The Drowsy Chaperone” (for which he won a 2006 Tony Award for best costume design of a musical), “Legally Blonde,” “Follies” (another 2012 Tony), “Kinky Boots,” “Something Rotten.”

Still, nothing he’s done is quite like “Aladdin,” opening at the State Theatre in Playhouse Square on Wednesday.

Barnes thinks he passed on nearly 30 jobs in the four years he helped turn the Disney animated classic into a Tony-winning musical. (“Aladdin,” starring Robin Williams as the voice of a garrulous blue genie named Genie who was freed from a lamp by a clever street urchin, was the highest-grossing film of 1992.)

Then again, when the Disney company rolls out the magic carpet and asks you to jump aboard, you don’t say, “No thanks.” 

The logistical challenges of the production were enormous, requiring intense focus and teamwork. While on some projects, he finds himself alone at his drawing table, “Aladdin” was truly collaborative. 

“If somebody has a seven-second costume change, you have to ask, ‘Where are they? Where are they re-entering? How many other people are changing at the same time?’ ” says Barnes.

(Aladdin Arithmetic: 102 costume changes are executed in less than one minute; 52 costume changes take place in less than 30 seconds.)

When building the show, director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw told Barnes and other designers to start by honoring the famous animation.

Barnes had to be mindful of how the iconic characters were drawn — particularly Aladdin and his crush Jasmine, the strong-willed princess of Agrabah — paying attention to the familiar cuts and colors they wore (or were, in the case of Genie).

“Certainly with Jasmine, when you see her in her classic attire, you want a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old to say, ‘Oh my gosh — that’s my Disney princess — here she is.’ ”

But Barnes could riff on the design, say, adding seemingly infinite beading and bling to Jasmine’s signature aqua ensemble — a midriff-bearing crop top paired with harem pants — to create “the Rolls-Royce version.”

(Aladdin Arithmetic: Jasmine’s wedding dress weighs 12 pounds because of all the crystal beading.)

“We don’t purchase beaded fabric off the shelf — everything is custom done,” says Barnes. 

Every sequin, Swarovski crystal, every rondelle and pearl you see shimmering on belts and turbans and bodices onstage in “Aladdin” is stitched by hand. Such artistry is uncommon because it blows the lid off budgets.

“It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to exercise the exquisite craft of costume design,” he says.

Having a Disney hit helps. “Aladdin” opened at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre in March 2014, has clocked more than 1,715 performances and is one of the top-grossing Broadway shows of all time.

There are six “Aladdin” companies performing the show around the world — in New York, Australia, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and on the road in the North American tour.

Its international appeal is no doubt thanks in part to the multicultural flair of Barnes’ designs.

The story is set in the fictional city of Agrabah. Because it wasn’t a real place, Barnes reasoned, why not locate it at the center of all the trade routes? “That way, we could use influences from Africa, Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East.” 

Drawing from a potpourri of global traditions in his research allowed him to explore “all these different textiles and ways of weaving and block printing — all the amazing things that cultures do to decorate the human being,” Barnes says.

The rich fabrics that whirl and swirl in “Aladdin” are pulled from the stalls of a planetary bazaar that include the countries of Morocco, Turkey, India, Uzbekistan, China, Tahiti, Japan, Guatemala, Mexico, France, Italy, England and Germany. 

“I might have picked 500 too many at the end of the day,” says Barnes with a laugh.

He developed an appreciation for world cultures traveling with his very own Auntie Mame.

Aunt Lizbeth had “wanderlust,” Barnes says, and she took him along — to Spain, Portugal, Morocco and around Europe when he was a kid.

“It’s funny about the impressions you get from those places, especially when you’re young,” Barnes says. “You kind of never forget. It really gets imprinted. 

“I can’t tell you what I had for dinner, but I can tell you about the marketplace in Tangier because I was 17, 18 when I went there.”

A jaunt with Auntie Lizbeth to the Folies-Bergère, the legendary Parisian music hall immortalized in Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” was also memorable.

“At that time, Liliane Montevecchi was the star,” Barnes says. (“If any entertainer could be described as ‘Paris incarnate,’ ” wrote The New York Times in 2016, “it might be Liliane Montevecchi, a quintessential French gamine from another age ...”)

Thirty years later, Barnes found himself in a fitting room with Paris incarnate herself. 

“I saw you when I was 18 at the Folies,” he told her. “She couldn’t believe it!” says Barnes.

“I owe a lot to that aunt.”

So does the look of the show, a rich tapestry of pigments, textures and techniques. To create the 337 costumes in “Aladdin,” Barnes and his team employed traditional craftsmanship and up-to-the-minute technology.

(Aladdin Arithmetic: There are 161 pairs of custom-made shoes in the show.)

In the showstopper “Friend Like Me,” an 11-minute number performed by Genie and the ensemble in the Cave of Wonders, the big man conjures six hubba-hubba dancing girls from thin air to show Aladdin why it’s good to have a pal like him.

Barnes wanted the harem pants they wore to be patterned with wisps of smoke to reinforce the notion that Genie had summoned them by magic. 

“Instead of appliquéing it all on, which is a beautiful, Old World approach,” Barnes says, he sketched out the idea and handed it to a graphic artist, who turned the sketch into a digitally printed fabric.

(Aladdin Arithmetic: There are 83 custom-designed textiles in the show.)

The result was cleaner, and they could control the color and uniformity of the pants from company to company. “So all across the world, in Japan, Australia, Germany, the tour, they’re all exactly the same,” says Barnes. “There’s no compromise, ever, because of finances or logistics.”

Audiences from Cleveland to Tokyo will see six women appear from nowhere in harem pants decorated with flames that morph into smoke running up their legs.

“It’s a very costly thing to do, but it was so worth it in the long run,” says Barnes. “If we hadn’t been a hit, maybe it would have been prohibitive, but we’ve made now 100 pairs of harem pants worldwide or more.

“After the Broadway show opened and we knew that we were going to have these six companies going out really quickly, we took other things that had been hand-painted and digitized them so they could be printed.

“We use new technology, but the effect is definitely of an Old World, hand-crafted nature.”

Today, now that the frenzy of getting the first show up and running has passed, he can reflect on the sheer number of pieces and parts created for “Aladdin.”

“They have these closets in the basement of the New Amsterdam where we store the costumes for first swing, the second swing, the third cover,” he says.

“You realize this wardrobe has been duplicated three times to keep things running smoothly — and that’s just for one production.”



What: The KeyBank Broadway Series presents the Tony Award-winning musical based on the 1992 Disney film. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Book by Beguelin. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.

When: Through Sunday, May 27. 

Where: KeyBank State Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $40-$175. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.