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Becoming a West End leading man is the top of the bucket list for most performers, but becoming a West End leading man in a Disney musical is for Matthew Croke, the latest Aladdin in the London production, quite literally a dream come true.
“Honestly I still can't put it into words” Matthew comments as we sit backstage at the beautiful Prince Edward Theatre. “I'm still pinching myself every day. Someone said to me stop pinching yourself, believe it, you're here. I actually don't think I'll ever stop pinching myself”.
Handsome, personable and incredibly calm despite having just finished an intense rehearsal with the rest of the cast Matthew glows with excitement and quite honestly cannot stop himself from smiling. “I have wanted something like this to happen for such a long time” he says as he tells me that even thinking about it still give him goosebumps. “For it to be this show is incredible, I'm so grateful, I can't get over it.”
Since opening in the West End last year Aladdin has gone on to become one of London's most popular musicals appealing across the board to families, tourists and musical theatre fans alike. There can be few people who don't have a natural affinity with Disney's cheeky animated character and the chance to see his world brought to life in such style is certainly a draw for many audiences.
“As a kid I loved Aladdin, everyone did, I thought I could be him one day” Matthew beams. “When I found out it was becoming a musical then coming over from Broadway to here I was determined to be part of it one day. I went to Disney world as a kid, you can't not love the films. To now be part of the Disney family is another massive privilege, I just can't really believe it.”
For a film that places magic at the forefront the obvious staging challenges have been overcome so effectively that audiences find themselves blown away by the sheer beauty and ingenuity of the staging and special effects.
“Sat here I still get that overwhelming feeling like I did when I watch it” Matthew explains, having just watched the show again 'out front' as part of the audience. “It's just incredible, the spectacle of what they've managed to put from the film into the show is just insane. I was blown away. I watched it again last night and that sense of being overwhelmed hasn't got any less, how they've managed to put it on stage is just amazing.”
Matthew's daily schedule is filled with rehearsing all aspects of the production, from learning Alan Menken's iconic score to working out exactly how the magic itself is brought to life.
“I love that no matter how much knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes the magic of Disney and the magic of Aladdin is always there” he comments. “I'm loving all the stuff that's not in the film, the song 'Somebody's Got Your Back' for example and the characters that aren't in the film. I'm really enjoying having my mates as my back up and security and my lads that I go to. My best mates are with me and that's a great feeling to have for me as an actor and Aladdin as a character.”
In a show that's bursting at the seams with exciting moments I wonder if Matthew has yet had time to find a particular highlight or a moment that he's most excited about bringing to life eight times a week.
“As far as my favourite thing goes it has to be the song 'Proud of Your Boy'” he replies quickly. “Going back to being a kid and wanting to perform my mum always used to cart me up and down around the country, so much of me will come out in that song. As Aladdin it will just mean so much, it's a beautiful song and the reprise of it in Act One is so great.” In terms of the personality traits he shares with his character he smiles as he realises which aspects come more naturally. “I think his naughty side, his cheeky side” he grins. “I do love having a good laugh with my mates and not taking anything too seriously. I'm also very ambitious, Aladdin wants more for his life so that's similar.”
These additional elements to the story and score have been designed by the creative team to make the musical work for audiences of all ages. Fans who grew up with the 1992 film are coming to the stage show as adults, some even bringing their own children along to see it in its new form.
“Aladdin is always going to be the kids favourite, you're never going to get away from that but what the extra things bring is that entertainment for the adults too” he explains. “You don't need to bring your kids to enjoy this, you can come on a date, come with your wife, your husband, your mate. Everything that's added brings a new adult level to it. It's for everyone, it's not just a kids show, there's so much more to it than that. You get to add much more to the character, he's not just some cool guy who lives on the street and falls in love. There's nostalgia attached to it too, sat amongst the audience you definitely get that. I was sat with groups of adults. It is important that kids enjoy it but it's so clever that they have managed to make it something for everybody.”
Stepping into a role a year after it has opened in the West End I wonder what the most important piece of advice Matthew has been given in terms of bringing the character to life.
“So far the most important thing is when you remember watching the film and loving Aladdin, you want him to be your mate” he explains. “When he's frustrated, angry, being cheeky, putting his romantic side on for Jasmine, no matter what he's going through people have got to like him and want to be his mate. I think finding that fine line in whatever emotion he might be having, focussing on that is the challenge.”
Making a role your own as an actor adds another layer to the role and Matthew is stepping into the production alongside Jade Ewen and Trevor Dion-Nicholas who both created the role of Jasmine and Genie last year. I wonder how that dynamic works and how Matthew hopes to bring his own qualities to the production.
“Being confident and making it my own is great” he explains. “Jade and Trevor are both happy to adjust to something that I maybe want to do, making it something that the three of us do together and not just stepping into something that's already now, recreating something that can be new again. I do have a dance background so I'm enjoying putting all three things together, things that I've worked so hard at for years now. Being the lead in a West End show is just incredible to be able to do all three things in one character. I'm a totally different person – putting a bit of Matthew into him will make it different. I do relate to him in loads of ways and I think hopefully that will happen – a little bit of me will be in my Aladdin. My choices will come from me and my own cheeky-chappy nature”.
It's clear that this role is more than a dream come true for Matthew and his enthusiasm and excitement is palpable. It may already feel like a genie has granted his biggest wish, but if he ever found himself with a magic lamp, his three wishes would be - ?
“To be able to do something that I've dreamed of doing for so long” he confirms. “I've been in the industry for ten years and I've always dreamed of this happening. My first wish would be to remain fit and healthy to be able to live this dream come true. I've just recently got engaged so that would be my second wish, for that happiness to continue with my fiancé.”
His third wish is more difficult to find and it takes some time for him to decide on his final answer. “To live up to the expectations of all the Aladdin fans and do the role justice” he states after much deliberation. “I don't want anything to get in the way of it, I want to be on every night and let it all soak in”.
After meeting Matthew and being swept away by his infectious charm and positivity I'm certain it won't take a genie to make that wish come true – audiences at the Prince Edward will have their expectations exceeded when he steps into the role next month.
Matthew Croke begins performances in Disney's Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre from Monday 5 June 2017.