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Jennifer Kumiyama's talent and determination landed her a part in Disney's 'Aladdin' stage show.

Source: Orange County Register, Sept 2, 2003.

By MICHELE HIMMELBERG
The Orange County Register

Auditions are always nerve-wracking. Putting yourself on the line. Straining to hit every note. Hoping the critics like what they hear - and what they see.

But Jennifer Kumiyama remembers being especially nervous on that long, hot day last summer, as she sang for a part in a new, high-caliber show called "Disney's Aladdin...A Musical Spectacular."

"It was the most-professional audition I had ever been to," said Kumiyama, 23, a music major at Long Beach City College. "I was shaking and had sweaty palms.

"But I sang, and the next day got a call back. I came back, sang another song, went home, and they called back again."

They wanted her...no matter that she sat in a wheelchair and danced around stage on a set of wheels.

It was Kumiyama's "pure determination" that intrigued director Francesca Zambello. Almost instantly, the award-winning director knew she wanted Kumiyama and her "soulful, angelic voice" to be part of the cast.

"We'd seen a wide diversity of race, age, ethnicity, everything that day," Zambello said, remembering the audition. "Jennifer came in and had this glow about her, and I thought, 'Wow, she has a lot of self-esteem' ... I was immediately drawn to her."

Zambello saw Kumiyama as a perfect fit for "Aladdin," which opened last January and plays up to four times a day at Disney's California Adventure. The story - about a poor boy who gains acceptance from royalty - unfolds in Agrabah, a mythical place that Disney portrays as a microcosm of the world.

"Agrabah has all kinds of people in it, and it's not like I needed one black, one green, one yellow, but the ensemble creates the universe that the show lives in," Zambello said. "How shortsighted of me not to have thought of it before: Why not have Jennifer there?

"Now she's in a cast of dancing, singing people, and she's out there creating something special and unique that's her own. ... She taught me a lot more than I taught her."

Kumiyama is perhaps the first Disney performer in a wheelchair in the company's 48 years in Anaheim. Officials couldn't verify that, but neither could anyone remember another mobility-challenged performer in a Disney show.

She was born with arthrogryposis, a disease that caused some of her joints to fuse, limiting the use of her hands and feet. She joins a diverse cast that ranges in age from teens to early 50s, with a broad mix of ethnicities.

Kumiyama's charisma, as well as her disability, have created a cast of admirers, including many wheelchair- bound visitors who crane their necks to see her on stage. It took a while for Kumiyama to get used to people staring and following her around the park.

"I think it's good for the public to see people who are different and all the things they can do, how it's possible to reach your goals when you keep pushing for them," Kumiyama said.

"A lot of kids come up to me now and say, 'Thank you.' I say, 'For what?'

" 'For being different and for getting out there. For doing what you do.' Those kids make it all worthwhile."

Kumiyama is one of 54 million people with disabilities who benefit from advances made since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. The ADA mandates barrier-free facilities and requires "reasonable accommodations" for job applicants and employees with a disability. Curb cuts, telephone relay services and accessible bathrooms are some of the items implemented to comply with ADA.

In the Aladdin production, Disney provided Kumiyama with a "show" wheelchair and an assistant to help her change costumes and put on wigs. The chair has its own costume, a rich tapestry covering and a couple of props, including a large gold flag that's unmistakable as Kumiyama moves around on stage.

When the ADA passed, Kumiyama was 10 years old. She moved into a mainstream school that year, and continued to sing every day with her mother's piano as accompaniment. By then, she had learned to maneuver her chair and do many tasks on her own.

"I hate to use the word 'force,' but my parents forced me to learn," she said. "I had regular chores and responsibilities. I've done my own laundry since I was 10.

"They were determined to teach me, and now I know I have what I think is a normal life. I get up and go to work. I have friends and family, and go out like a normal 23-year-old.

"I always want people to know I don't see myself as different. I've been this way since Day 1, and I don't know any other way. What is normal, anyway? We all have things to overcome, and we do it in our own way."

The oldest of six children, she began singing in a church choir at 5. She performed in theater productions throughout high school, and moved on to community theater with shows such as "Cinderella," "Tom Sawyer" and "A Christmas Carol." The crew made the outdoor amphitheater accessible for her by widening the stage and adding a ramp.

Her first big break came two years ago, on a TV show called "Pop Stars 2." She made the first cut - "before the dance audition" she says with a smile. Entertainment publications and Internet sites took notice of the new talent.

Then last summer, she and a bunch of friends drove to Burbank for the Disney audition. After the final callback, they said they wanted her, but it was several days before the official offer came. She remembers being in a Starbucks, alone, studying for midterms. "I shouted really loud, 'Oh, my gosh, I made it.' I was so excited, and then I saw everyone looking at me. I was so embarrassed."

Now she takes the bus to Anaheim in the mornings, leaving Long Beach at 8:30 a.m. for the two-hour-plus commute. She likes to take the bus because she can do it on her own. After night shows, she accepts a ride home from family or co-workers.

Someday, she would like to do voice-over work, perhaps becoming the voice of an animated Disney character and singing her heart out, no matter that her feet don't dance.

"I'm really stubborn," she said of her goals. "Just ask my parents. They always told me this (talent) is something God has given me, and now you have to give it out.

"But it's weird. I never started this with the idea of making an impact. This is what I do and I love doing it. This makes my life whole."

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