‘Aladdin’ star offers up empathy for the whole new world of parenting

Ever wondered how Jafar would handle middle-of-the-night feedings or preschool carpool lanes? Luckily for Jonathan Weir’s kids, the veteran Chicago actor portraying the Arabian Nights antagonist had a much gentler approach than his onstage counterpart might have. Although his “kids” are now grown, he remembers all too well his time in the trenches, and he took time from the vibrant, wildly popular Aladdin (now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre) to chat about his parenting philosophies, the appeal of Chicago and that eternally wonderful magic carpet ride of a show.

If you go

“Aladdin” runs through Sept. 10, 2017

Cadillac Palace Theatre

151 W. Randolph St., Chicago


You’ve spent time with Broadway’s The Lion King as “Scar” and are now Aladdin’s “Jafar;” do you find you gravitate towards villains?

I gravitate to whatever job interests me! I’ve been in Chicago for 30 years and I’ve played a wide range of roles, from comedic to serious to the bad guys and the heavies. I had a 13-year relationship with Lion King that I never could’ve dreamed of. I guess with the Disney villains, I’ve tapped into my inner demons to bring those to life.

No desire to play a Disney hero?

Yeah, let me see, what father would be a hero? They’d have to write a new show.

There’s King Triton — he’s a nice guy.

Yeah, I can do the “nice guy” too. I don’t take for granted that I am working and continuing to do what I love; because I truly, truly do enjoy it.

How do you make such an iconic character your own?

It’s a little bit of responsibility to fill those shoes! Jonathan Freeman — who originated the voice of Jafar — laid a beautiful track, of course. The trick is, in my estimation, to not make it a stereotype, to ask yourself, “Why does this man pursue ultimate power and world domination? What’s behind somebody like that?” So you try to make him a human being as well, and that for me becomes the fun part. To bring it to life. [The production team] was very encouraging about bringing ourselves to the roles and making it our own. They weren’t craving something that had already been done. I’m very fortunate; the gentlemen that plays Iago in the show, Reggie De Leon, is probably one of the best scene partners I’ve ever had. And in this company there’s an ensemble of truly amazing actors and crew and stage management. Throughout the whole process, there’s been nothing but support and encouragement and a true, true sense of community and family. You don’t always get that. You’d like to, but it’s not a guarantee.

Thoughts on working in the arts and raising a family in the Chicagoland area?

Chicago has a very unique and special community here — and the audiences are included in that as well. I think we have some of the most informed, savvy audiences out there. Chicago is an ensemble town. It’s not a “star” town. It’s about doing the work and honoring the text and the play. It’s a different vibe here.

Our son was 10 months old when we moved to Chicago; we had looked at L.A., Minneapolis, New York … I think the thing about Chicago is, you can raise a family, own a house, the cost of living’s a little more reasonable. There might be a glass ceiling on [theatrical] pay, but you’re also able to go do a commercial audition, a voice audition, a play at The Goodman, and then go do an industrial trade show. There are many people here who go and work regionally or bounce back and forth between New York and Chicago; we’re nomadic by nature, actors. We go where the work is. The difference is that I think Chicago affords you more opportunities to work and more consistently.

And the unfair question — are your kids fans of your work?

(Laughs.) Yes, they’re fans of my work. They all came to see Aladdin and I think they were proud that their dad is doing his thing; and I’m equally proud of what they’re doing. They saw a lot of theater growing up and then they’d go see my wife’s stuff that she was directing at school. They were always excited to go and it was a big part of their life — that being said, none of them went into the business!

Any parting parenting advice?

[My wife and I] always did tag-team parenting. (Weir’s wife, Sarah Gabel, Ph.D., is the chairperson for the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Loyola University Chicago, where Weir is also an adjunct professor.) I remember taking three kids into an audition and asking a friend or fellow actor, “Hey, I’m just going to run in. Do you mind keeping an eye on them…?” You have to do what you have to do. It’s important to have a partner who gets and supports that. I was an early-on “Mr. Stay-At-Home Dad.” When I wasn’t at a show, I was taking care of our kids. And loving it, actually. I was the PTA president at the kids’ school, and we were Cub Scout leaders for our boys. And then I thought, “Well that seems unfair, our daughter’s missing out,” so then it was me and three other moms who were the Brownie Troop leaders. I just wanted to be involved in all aspects of their lives. It’s a lot of scheduling, a lot of energy, a lot of communication and hashing it out, but I’m glad we did.

You’ve got to keep up with them, because they keep changing and you’ve got to stay fluid. The years go fast, but boy, it’s great to have an adult relationship with your kids. I think a sense of humor helps but, if you do it right, you still want to hang. And have a cocktail with them!

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