For one small moment, in the middle of the Actors Fund annual gala at the sold-out New Amsterdam Theater on Monday night, it seemed like the fun-filled evening was going to turn serious and formal. Brian Stokes Mitchell took to the stage behind a podium to laud Joe Benincasa, who has served as president and CEO of the Actors Fund for 25 years.
But instead of the usual speech, Mitchell suddenly burst out into song — a version of “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” from Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” with rewritten lyrics especially for Benincasa — and was joined onstage by the original Broadway Mary Poppins and Bert, Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee. All three led the entire audience in a musical tribute to Benincasa as he received his award, the Actors Fund Medal of Honor. Benincasa declared he was “speechless.”
The other honoree of the night was Disney Theatrical Group. Sporting a fine three-piece suit and bright neon pink framed glasses, Disney Theatrical Productions president Thomas Schumacher was toasted by writer and actor Rick Elice for employing more than 10,000 entertainment industry professionals in Disney shows during his 20 years on the job.
In total, the night raised a record-breaking $1.6 million for the Actors Fund. The Fund, now 132 years old, is a non-profit dedicated to providing services to all entertainment industry professionals, including housing, health insurance and counseling for those in need. Almost all the actors interviewed said they had had friends who had needed its help at one point or another. Schumacher admitted he was once “not the biggest fan” of the Fund — until he needed it. “Its power is that it’s there when you need it, without judgment,” he said.
The evening’s show, titled “Celebrating 20 years of Disney on Broadway,” would have delighted anyone’s inner 8-year-old. It included performances by the cast of “Newsies”; the original Little Mermaid, Sierra Boggess; and a reunion of the original leads of “Aida,” Sherie Rene Scott, Adam Pascal and Heather Headley. The finale was the spectacular “Friend Like Me” from the newly opened “Aladdin.” Actors then gathered for an after-party at the Marriott.
James Monroe Iglehart, who plays “Aladdin’s” Genie, said he was relieved when producers told him he didn’t have to be Robin Williams. “I get to be me,” he said. “And I take inspiration from the big band leaders of the past, and from my own brand of silliness.” The Genie, Iglehart said, has been his favorite character since he was 17 years old. “For me, this is a wonderful wish come true!” And the evening’s performances, for him, was “nerd heaven! This was like the greatest hits of all the CDs I had as a kid!”
Mitchell, in attendance with his wife Allyson Tucker-Mitchell, said the evening was like “flying to the moon. It was an explosion of fun.” Mitchell is just beginning rehearsals for his role as Don Pedro in “Much Ado About Nothing” at Shakespeare in the Park this summer and for a production of “Camelot” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
(Pictured: The cast of “Newsies” performs at the Actors Fund gala.)