Disney's Aladdin

ALADDIN: Granting Wishes and Bringing Real-Life Magic to Charlotte

Apr 4, 2023 / Blog
By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

Disney’s ALADDIN returns to Charlotte, April 5 - 9. And for local theater teacher Nicole DePietro, the show is jam-packed with memories and special meaning. Only one word can sum them all up… magical.


In 2019, when the Broadway national tour first came to town, DePietro—a Union County Public School teacher—suddenly found herself center stage at Belk Theater, holding a giant check, as the surprise honoree in front of thousands of spectators.




At the time, she was busy rehearsing Parkwood Middle School’s fall production of Disney’s ALADDIN, JR., trying to come up with creative ways to make the show shine on a limited budget. The 15-year teaching veteran has more help now, but back then she was doing everything on her own.


“For ALADDIN, it really was just me: choreographing, musical directing, blocking, sets, lights, costumes, everything,” she says.


DePietro is used to stretching dollars and finding work-arounds. “Very rarely can we look at something and be like ‘we could just buy that,’” she says. “It’s always… ‘how do we make that?’”


But that autumn, several serendipitous things happened in quick succession to shake things up.


One surprise after another


First, she found out Parkwood’s application to be part of a national program called “Pass the Lamp,” had been successful. That meant the Monroe, North Carolina school, which serves a mostly rural community, would get to use the original lamp from the Broadway production during the run of its show before sending it to another school across the country.


Then she received a phone call out of the blue from Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Education department: a special invitation for DePietro and her ALADDIN, JR. cast to come see the Broadway national tour of the show perform at Belk Theatre.


She was told the company would be celebrating its 1,001st performance and, in a nod to the story’s adaptation from centuries old folktales known collectively as “One Thousand and One Nights,” Disney wanted to gift tickets to a local school that would be putting on ALADDIN, JR. that year.


Blumenthal knew about Parkwood’s planned production because every spring DePietro participates in the Junior Theater Celebration, a special event that brings thousands of local elementary and middle school students and their teachers to uptown Charlotte to perform and participate in expert-led workshops. As part of that program, schools can apply for a subsidy to cover the cost of their planned musical’s showkit — including scripts, scores, a director’s guide, and rehearsal tracks, which DePietro had already requested that year.


So on September 18, she headed to Belk Theater with her mom and about 30 kids from Parkwood—thrilled to have this opportunity for them. She was told by Blumenthal’s Education team that the actress playing Jasmine, one of the lead roles, was a former teacher and hoped to speak with DePietro after the show. Someone would come to bring her backstage during the curtain call.




Little did DePietro know, the biggest surprise of the evening was still to come.


“They played it really cool,” she says. “I honestly had no idea…”


As the show wrapped up, DePietro waited in the wings. She noticed someone nearby using a phone to film the curtain call and wondered why.


“Then the Genie (actor Korie Lee Blossey) started talking and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I couldn’t believe it.”


That’s because he was speaking about DePietro!


He invited her onstage and spoke about the importance of arts education and the essential role she and other local teachers across the country play in the lives of youth. He also presented her with a giant check made out to the school for $1,001.


The memo line reads: For Granting Wishes.


And that’s exactly what it has done both in practical and metaphorical ways. Today, the check hangs symbolically in DePietro’s classroom.


How they used the money


For DePietro and the school, this was a huge gift. It essentially doubled the available production budget.


“We have a wonderful PTO,” DePietro says of the Parkwood school community made of hard-working parents and a supportive administration. “[But we] don’t have a ton of money. We’re not in the richest part of town. So our theater program—everything that we do—is very much whatever we can do with what we have, basically. We’re good [at] working with not a lot of money.”


With the extra funds available, she decided to invest in costumes and technical elements to elevate the production.


“I had planned to sew, you know, like 20 pairs of harem pants,” she says.




Instead, she was able to purchase beautiful jewel toned pants and skirts for the show, which freed up more time for her to work directly with the students and put more time into choreographing musical numbers.


“I love costuming the kids,” she says. “because [there's] such a big life change in a student performer when they’re out of costume versus in costume… even though you’ve got your kids who are your leads and all that, I want them all to feel cool when they’re on stage. I don’t want them to feel like I just threw a costume at them and said ‘OK, put this on, because you’re in the ensemble.”


She continues to use the costumes in class and share them with other schools whenever they need some help, too.


The money also enabled her to add extra pizazz to the show’s big musical number, “A Whole New World.” She purchased belly dancer wings for some of the performers—adding fairy lights to make them glitter—and invested in a starlight effect for the theater.


That led to one of her favorite moments as a director. She remembers racing up to the lighting booth during the school’s production and holding her hands over the special light as she plugged it in. Seconds later, she uncupped them, and the whole audience let out a collective gasp, totally immersed in shimmering blue light.




Celebrating the teaching profession


But for DePietro, it wasn’t just about the money. After all, she believes a key part of the experience for kids participating in educational theater is coming up with creative ways to problem solve.


Being recognized center stage at Belk Theater was deeply meaningful. And having her students in the audience, soaking it all in, made the experience extra special.


“I remember hearing them just screaming, excited, that I was up there,” she says.


She was happy they could see both a live professional production showcasing the career possibilities that exist for performers, as well as a public celebration of a life dedicated to teaching.




“Theater can be cool,” DePietro says. “You can be up on stage… and tour around the country and perform but it's also really cool to be the person who stays in the classroom and teaches the kids who grow up to do that...


“Maybe they’ll be inspired to do something like that now—they can see you can get a little glory and recognition being a teacher and that’s an important thing to be.”


After she received the check and the curtain came down, DePietro spoke to the national tour cast about the meaning and value of theater.


“I remember looking over and… some of the actors were getting choked up,” she says. “Maybe they were thinking of their person who lit the fire in them.”




Life-changing inspirations


DePietro knows how important the ripple effect from such support can be. She remembers her own high school teacher in Long Island, Mr. Moniaci, or “Mo,” as they called him.


Mo always wanted to do plays nobody had heard of or shake up familiar titles in a new way, she says, because he believed it was an opportunity to make it your own. It’s that kind of spirit that inspired her recently to put a steampunk spin on some costumes used for the school’s production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, JR.


“I love to do that kind of stuff now… even though at the time, I was like ‘I just want to do what everybody else is doing,’” DePietro says. “Now, looking back on it,  I think he really taught me to broaden my mind and broaden my creativity when I perform something… you can play and have fun and you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.”


DePietro’s parents also nurtured that spark within her. They moved to North Carolina at the same time DePietro and her then-boyfriend, now-husband did. Her mom has always been her biggest supporter, she says, even putting up with DePietro’s tendency to “borrow” items for school productions, without asking, when she was growing up.


“I would steal things from all over the house and she would see them up on stage—and be like, ‘Is that my tea kettle? Is that my skirt? Is that my dish towel?’”


Her dad, Walter, a professional musician, was also hugely influential. He played guitar, accordion, the piano and was an incredible singer, she says.


When they lived in New York, he played for many special private and corporate events and was in the house band at The Peninsula Hotel in New York City and Tavern on the Green, a popular restaurant in Central Park. Once they moved to the Carolinas, he went into semi-retirement but continued to play music weekly in local restaurants and occasional private parties.


“He always made me feel like being a teacher was a beautiful, worthwhile thing to do,” she says. “But he also supported me as a performer. .. when I had an audition, he would film me… and help me with my songs and my rehearsals and stuff. He was definitely my creative muse.”


Sadly, Walter DePietro passed away several weeks ago. He was diagnosed with cancer and declined quickly.


“Life turns on a dime,” DePietro says.


Shortly before that happened, however, DePietro was able to fulfill one of her own dreams: she officially started her own community theater company, for students in 6th - 12th grade, with money her dad gave her.


It’s called “Rah! Theatre” and will have its first performance later this spring.


“I’m sad that he didn’t get to see any of the shows that we put on through that. But I’m glad that he got to know I was starting it before he passed.”


She dreams of someday building the Walter DePietro Theater in his honor.


But for now, sharing the lessons he and other influential mentors taught her, is the best way to pay tribute.


“I hope when kids leave my classroom, they realize that creativity looks a lot of different ways. And characters can look lots of different ways,” she says. “...Let your weird, little light shine in the world because you might not be the same as everybody else, you may not create the same, the art that you create may not be the same but it still has value…. Also give space to others to do that.”


DePietro will be back at Belk Theater for opening night of ALADDIN, and her mom will be by her side, once more. After the performance, they will be Blumenthal’s special guests at the opening night cast party.


DePietro says it’s been tough since her dad’s passing and an evening out is something she and her mom really need.


“I don't know what it is about ALADDIN, but it continues to be this really magical experience for me and for my family,” she says.


“I’m just so grateful to Blumenthal, to theater, to the gift that my dad helped give me that I’ve gotten to be part of this incredible community… not just my little community of theater people here but the wider theater community, too, and we just all, you know—help each other out.”



Disney's Aladdin

Groups of 10+ receive 10% off. Valid on select performances and price zones.

Apr 5 - 9, 2023