Baldwin Wallace graduate Ellis C. Dawson III is an important part of the magic and wonder of the national tour of Aladdin.

The 2016 musical theater grad is one of two standbys for the lead role of the Genie, who in the live production is inspired by Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, a performer rooted in jazz, blues, R&B and gospel.

Dawson, a Virginia native, spoke by phone recently from Denver on the first anniversary of the tour, which the cast was celebrating with a toast. He auditioned for Aladdin several months after graduation in 2016, when he was first considered for the Genie role for the national tour.

A couple of months went by after the audition, with Dawson playing in the ensemble of a production of In the Heights in Texas before returning to New York. The day he got back, he threw out his Genie audition materials.

“The next day, I got a call saying they wanted to see me for the standby for the national tour,’’ Dawson said.

That’s when Genie Boot Camp began, which entailed eight-hour days in rehearsal with 11 other hopefuls vying for the role. Dawson said all the other guys were big and bald. He’s a thin 6 feet 2 inches and wasn’t bald at the time, but he sported a big beard.

First, Disney paid for them to see the Broadway show. Then they had a week of paid rehearsals where they were coached and learned the dances in the rehearsal hall of the New Amsterdam Theater, where Aladdin plays in New York.

All of the Genie auditioners did their scenes in front of each other and were coached by the associate director in front of each other. The men were very supportive, Dawson said, and he made some great friends.

“We call it the Genie brotherhood,” he said.

Playing the Genie

At the end of the process, Dawson got a call that it was time to shave his head: He was going to be one of two Genie standbys for the tour. A third standby was chosen for the Broadway show from the same boot camp. (A standby is an actor who must be ready to step into a lead role at any moment, even in the middle of a show.)

“My dream ever since I was 12 years old was to book a national tour out of college,” said Dawson, who attended the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Va. “I figured what better way to see the country than to get paid doing what you love and share a beautiful story to the masses?”

In the last year, Dawson, a baritenor, has gone on as the Genie more than 85 times. The first time he went on was Mother’s Day, when he was called to play the second show of the day because Genie Michael James Scott was losing his voice.

He pulled it off despite not yet having yet had a “put-in” rehearsal onstage with the whole cast, in costume. Up until that point, as a standby, Dawson had rehearsed only with the stage manager, dance captain and some swings.

Dawson’s nickname is “Teeny Genie” because he’s tall yet much smaller than other Genies, a role originated by Tony Award winner James Monroe Iglehart on Broadway.

“They gave a very, very skinny 22-year-old with an Afro a chance … [In costume] I look larger than life onstage but in a different way. What I don’t have in size, I make up in presence.”

Dawson said the inspiration for the musical Genie is very different from Robin Williams’ for the film, a role he made uniquely his own as a shapeshifter. Now, the character goes back to the roots of how he was originally written. Onstage, the Genie stays himself but takes on different voices when he becomes other personas.

Beyond the film

The actor also is the standby for Babkak, one of Aladdin’s friends who didn’t make it into the 1992 animated film but was brought back for the stage version. Those three characters — Babkak, Omar and Kassim — were replaced with Aladdin’s animal friend Abu in the movie.

“Outside of Genie, Babkak is another comic relief,” Dawson said of the sarcastic, wisecracking street rat. “He’s always hungry. Always hungry. He makes a lot of food jokes” and is hungry not only for food but also for a better life.

The musical, based on the film that was the highest-grossing film of 1992, features the film’s five beloved songs (including A Whole New World) and additional numbers to fill out the score. The show includes multiple illusions, 84 special effects including pyrotechnics, 38 tons of flying scenery and more than 2,000 different fabrics and trims in its costumes from 13 countries.

As the Genie, Dawson wears four costumes, the most recognizable being a blue jumpsuit with parachute pants and vest.

“It is bedazzled and blinged out. It’s super comfortable and there are jewels everywhere,” he said. “We look like royalty.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.