The company of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ performs ‘Friend Like Me,’ a 12-minute number in the dance-infused Broadway musical that has its first performance at the Buell Theatre on Saturday. Photo by Deen van Meer.
Colorado native flying high from making big-time music videos to dancing in Disney’s Denver-bound Aladdin
By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist
Celina Nightengale was no theatre kid. She was a competition dancer from a very young age and broke into the big time appearing in music videos for superstars Janet Jackson, Adam Lambert and Jason Derulo. She’s even Alicia Keys’ body double in the video “Tears Always Win.”
“Fun fact: Alicia couldn’t film half of the video because she was doing ‘American Idol,’ at the same time,” Nightengale said, “so I ended up filming the rest of the video as her.”
But the Denver native who grew up in Park Hill and Five Points literally rocked her way into a life in live theatre in 2012. Rock of Ages, to be exact. Nightengale was hired into the original Las Vegas company of the 1980s-era big-hair Broadway rock musical, and stayed for three years. After that she moved to New York City, where her professional dance training made her just what the producers of Disney’s Aladdin were looking for when they cast for the national touring production that has its first performance in Denver on Saturday night.
“I did it kind of backward,” said Nightengale, a graduate of Denver Lutheran High School, the University of Denver — and the Colorado Mammoth lacrosse team’s “Wild Bunch” dance team.
But even though Nightengale followed an untraditional path to a Broadway life, the actor who stars as Aladdin says she is just right for the opulent, colorful and dance-infused spectacle that is about to fly into the Buell Theatre on its magic carpet.
“If you want some good energy, just go to Celina,” said Clinton Greenspan. “That woman is pure brilliance and excitement and just … beauty. She is a hardcore dancer, singer and actress. And she’s a very powerful spirit.”
To which Nightengale responded wistfully, “Aww, that’s really nice. … And it’s kind of true.”
The comment comes with a laugh. “I don’t know if you can tell over the phone, but everyone always knows when I’m in the room because I have the loudest laugh,” she said. “I got kicked out of many classes in high school for that laugh.”
She’ll bring that playful energy to the Buell Theatre through April 27 when Denver audiences get their first look at the now 25-year-old animated source film adapted to the stage. She says the musical — and its audience — have grown up over that time.
“Everyone who loves Disney has a connection to Aladdin,” Nightengale said. “It’s a story that everyone can relate to. But on stage, it has new twists. It’s a little bit more grown up. It’s a little sexier, I dare to say. It really is.”
All those kids who grew up with the film are Nightengale’s contemporaries now, and she said they might be surprised to discover that, through adult eyes, Aladdin is a grown-up love story.
“I mean, you have Aladdin and Jasmine … a magic carpet ride … come on!” she said. “Everyone goes crazy when they come down from the carpet and have a kiss. I’m telling you: The whole entire theater.”
(Story continues after the photo gallery below.)
Celina Nightengale: A photo gallery
Photos provided by Celina Nightengale from her time growing up in Denver, including family photos and her time with local dance organizations. To see more, simply click on the image above to be taken to our full gallery. All photos courtesy Celina Nightengale.
And for a dancer, she said, Aladdin makes for a serious workout. The show is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon).
“The dancing is a serious challenge. You have to be a great dancer to book this job, and that is no joke,” Nightengale said. “But that’s what makes it so amazing. Every number is something of a marathon. ‘Arabian Nights,’ the opening number, is about eight minutes long. ‘A Friend Like Me’ is 12 minutes long. I start on stage at th very top of that number, and I don’t leave until the very last note. There is also this giant tap number. It always surprises people how great the dancing is. I can’t say enough about it.”
“And then the other challenge of this show is the costume changes,” she said. “There are 100 costume changes in one number, between all of us. But that’s what makes it so amazing.”
Nightengale trained at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Colorado Ballet and Hill Academy of Dance and Dramatics. She earned B.A. in communications and marketing from the University of Denver while serving as co-captain of the DU Dance Team. She then accepted a full dance scholarship to the Edge Performing Arts Center in Hollywood.
Nightengale did not grow up watching touring musicals at the Buell Theatre like so many wee Broadway hopefuls. She likens growing up in competition dance to a life in gymnastics or ice-skating — sports that require total commitment from the earliest ages. “I trained every day from the time school let out until late into the night,” she said, “and I did that for my whole life.”
Still, she said coming home for the first time in 12 years and performing on that famed Buell Theatre stage will mean everything to her — and even more for her proud family. “My two best friends in the whole world are my sisters, Alexis and Carmen,” she said.
“Performing in Denver is clearly very important to Celina,” Greenspan said. “For all touring performers, to perform in your hometown is a just humongous, special treat. But I think it’s especially important for Celina because of the young people who will see her and be inspired by her.”
And now that Nightengale has found her place in theatre, she plans to keep it.
“You know what’s funny? Theater is actually the best steady paycheck you could ever ask for, in my opinion,” she said. “Because I just did videos for these people, which was great. They’ll live on in infamy, but once you get that paycheck, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m done?’ In theatre, it’s nice to know that you’re going to get paid every week.”
And this week, she’ll get paid for doing what she loves, in the city she learned to do it in.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
(Pictured above right: Celina Nightengale was on the set of ‘Colorado’s Best’ this morning with the lamp from ‘Disney’s Aladdin.’)
Disney’s Aladdin: Ticket information
From the producer of The Lion King comes the timeless story of Aladdin, a thrilling new production filled with unforgettable beauty, magic, comedy and breathtaking spectacle. It’s an extraordinary theatrical event where one lamp and three wishes make the possibilities infinite.
- National touring production
- Performances through April 28
- Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
- Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Previous NewsCenter coverage of Disney’s Aladdin:
Disney names a new Aladdin for Denver: Our interview with Clinton Greenspan
The Alicia Keys video: “Tears Always Win”: