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Meet the Sunderland Actor Playing a Disney Villain in Smash Hit Aladdin the Musical

Meet the Sunderland Actor Playing a Disney Villain in Smash Hit Aladdin the Musical L-R: Angelo Paragoso, Adam Strong. Photograph Deen Van Meer
What's on
January 2024
Reading time 5 Minutes

The first ever UK and Ireland tour of Disney's West End musical, Aladdin, is flying into Sunderland Empire this February

We meet Sunderland's own Adam Strong who is transforming into the villain, Jafar.

Adam is having a full circle moment – he began his acting career at Sunderland Empire aged eight playing Jerome in South Pacific. ‘I was quite a shy child and my sister pushed me into an audition when I was very young,’ he says. ‘No one had realised I had vocal talent. Watching shows over the years, when my parents would take me to the theatre, I just fell in love with them and I didn’t really want to do anything else. I didn’t think I’d ever have the confidence to be up there which is mad seeing that now I do it for a living, but I always wanted to follow in my sister’s footsteps and be on the stage – and here we are.

‘I moved down to London and went to drama school and I’ve been working in musicals ever since, all around the world, but it always means the world to come back to the North East. Sunderland Empire was my home as a child and it definitely holds a special place in my heart.’

Disney’s ALADDIN. Photo of original London production. Photo by Deen Van Meer. ©Disney. Disney’s ALADDIN. Photo of original London production. Photo by Deen Van Meer. ©Disney.
Disney’s ALADDIN. Photo of original London production. Photo by Deen Van Meer. ©Disney. Disney’s ALADDIN. Photo of original London production. Photo by Deen Van Meer. ©Disney.

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Adam’s first major role was in Jesus Christ Superstar, where he starred alongside Mel C and Tim Minchin, and toured all around the UK and Australia. ‘I never thought my career would take me to somewhere like Australia but I’ve been there a few times now and I’ve been very fortunate to do that. I’ve been in quite a lot of rock musicals which for someone who’s more classically trained has been such a great thing. I did Rock of Ages which also came to the Empire, and most recently I did We Will Rock You, the musical by Queen and Ben Elton. Working for Queen was such a thrilling experience and getting to perform with Brian May on gala night was really exciting. I’ve got the best agent behind me to keep pushing me to all of these amazing opportunities which I wouldn’t get without him, and of course – I’m a Disney villain! That’s still very surreal.’

Adam has loved Jafar since he was a child. ‘I’ve still got the Jafar teddy I got when I was five years old,’ he laughs. ‘I always gravitated towards him which people are always shocked about when they meet me. There’s some escapism in playing a villain and he’s so up and down that he’s so fun to play – you never know when he’s going to snap. Of course his main goal is to become ruler of the kingdom and he’ll do anything in order to make that happen. In the film he has a sidekick which is a parrot. The musical is slightly different in that the sidekick is an actor but we have the best time – like a comedy duo. There’ve also been some songs written for Jafar in the show which aren’t in the animation. Alan Menken has written some fantastic Disney songs over the years and it’s a real privilege to get to sing these every night.’

Gavin Adams, Yeukayi Ushe, Ensemble Gavin Adams, Yeukayi Ushe, Ensemble

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Adapted from Disney’s 1992 animated film and centuries-old folktales, this smash-hit musical is brought to life with more than 1,000 fabrics, more than 700 styles of beads, and 1,428 Swarovski crystals in a single pair of men’s pants in the finale Friend Like Me. Since opening in March 2014, nine subsequent productions have launched around the world, including more than 1,200 performances at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End. ‘When you do a musical like this, for the majority of the time it’s in the West End and getting friends and family to come down to London isn’t always possible, so it’s going to be so amazing to be back home,’ Adam says. ‘It’s been very well received so far. Audiences can expect, first and foremost, some Disney magic. They can expect lavish production numbers, a love story and of course there’s a magic flying carpet. That is Disney magic at its finest. Watching it for the first time was absolutely breathtaking. It’s gone down very well! Of course there are so many famous songs in this show (like A Whole New World, Friend Like Me and Arabian Nights) and some of the best costumes you’ll ever see! I just found out that there are 162 costumes in the show – bearing in mind it’s only two and a half hours long, that’s a lot of changes!

‘We’ve had a standing ovation every night and Disney’s Aladdin has never toured in the UK, so it’s a first. Audiences are used to seeing The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast on the road, and Aladdin is such a well-loved title of one of the greatest Disney musicals of all time it’s fantastic to bring such a big spectacle to cities around the UK, and to the North East especially. Everyone loves Aladdin and there's such a wide age span coming to see the show; there’s adult humour as well as plenty of fun for the kids, so there really is something for everyone. My 87-year-old grandmother had the best time when she came to see it!

To play Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin is such an amazing experience. Everyone in the industry wants to be in a Disney show, they’re the top of the game, and I’m absolutely overwhelmed by the love from everyone. I can’t wait for everyone to meet Jafar.’

Desmonda Cathabel. Photograph Deen Van Meer Desmonda Cathabel. Photograph Deen Van Meer
Yeukayi Ushe, Ensemble. Photograph Deen Van Meer Yeukayi Ushe, Ensemble. Photograph Deen Van Meer
Gavin Adams, Desmonda Cathabel. Photograph Deen Van Meer Gavin Adams, Desmonda Cathabel. Photograph Deen Van Meer

Your favourite song to perform on stage?
Prince Ali. Jafar has his own reprise and I love it. It’s evil and sinister and one of the most famous songs in the show.

Your favourite thing about being on stage?
The response you get from the audience. There’s nothing quite like it.

A North East actor you’d love to perform with?
Denise Welch.

How do you spend your downtime in between shows on the road?
Shopping, eating out and exploring the various cities. It’s so great that we get to to all these cities and see what they have to offer. Really soaking up the culture of the area.

What are you watching?
Bodies on Netflix. I’m very confused by it! Friends is my all-time favourite though. If I’m sad, happy or need background noise, I watch Friends.

Your happy place in the North East?
I love to be by the beach. We’re so lucky to live so close to the coast.

Advice for budding actors?
Just keep going to singing, dancing and acting lessons as much as possible. That’s what I did as a child. Certainly going to drama school was the springboard for my career, but I can’t thank my local teachers enough for helping me too. It’s a very tough industry but hard work really pays off.

Plans for the future?
Who knows? I’d love to carry on with Disney. But we’re with this show until January 2025 which is amazing. I’d love to play another Disney villain but for now I’m just having the best time working for one of the best companies in the world.

Disney’s Aladdin comes to Sunderland Empire 15th February–10th March 2024.

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