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Friday, November 15, 2019

‘Aladdin’ Brings Disney Magic to the Hippodrome

If the chilly air of Baltimore in November gets you down, I will grant you three wishes to help perk things up. Among those wishes should be, “I want to see Aladdin at the Hippodrome.”

In a dazzling, glitzy spectacle, the national touring musical Aladdin, under the auspices of Disney Theatrical Productions and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, has set up shop at the Hippodrome Theatre.  The production shines like no other.

Some may believe that Aladdin is just for kids, but their parents and other adults who are young at heart will sure to be taken in as well.  The musical, which is one of the highest grossing productions in Broadway history, is based on the extremely popular 1992 animated film by the same name. With the book by Chad Beguelin, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin, Aladdin is an entertainment bonanza.

If the name Alan Menken sounds familiar, the multiple Oscar winning composer scored a number of Disney hit movies besides Aladdin, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas.  In addition, he composed the score for popular musicals like Newsies, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules among others.

Kaenaonalani Kekoa and Jonah Ho'okano on a magic carpet ride

The familiar fairy tale story is brimming with fantasy and enchantment regarding a handsome and poor street thief in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah who, with the help from an oddball and comical genie and his magic lamp, fights off the bad guys and wins the heart of a beautiful princess. The good folks live happily ever after; the villains, not so much.

Visually, there is an abundance of eye-popping special effects, incredibly gorgeous and colorful costumes (designed by Gregg Barnes); exceptional lighting displays that bathe the stage in every color of the spectrum (Natasha Katz); majestic scenery and props (Bob Crowley) with all the baubles, bangles and beads one could muster; and spirited and precise production numbers performed by a talented and attractive cast. 
From a sound perspective, Aladdin also excels. Music Director/Conductor Brent-Alan Huffman and the sizable orchestra ably support the talented vocalists without overwhelming them. Ken Travis’ sound design assures that every spoken word and sung lyric is crystal clear throughout the production. Special sound techniques provide the right atmosphere for spooky voices and other effects.

And on top of all that there is a prodigious amount of shtick in the dialogue and in some songs’ lyrics. I mean Marx Brothers-type shtick. Puns abound, maybe a bit too much of it, but it keeps the audience laughing throughout. I’m not sure all of the young ones get some of the jokes but, hey, the adults enjoy them and they buy the tickets.  One thing is for sure: there is never a dull moment in this production.
"...a dazzling, glitzy spectacle..."
Aladdin contains many wonderful moments and of these, there are two of epoch proportions. One is the amazing production number at the end of the first act, “Friend Like Me.” It’s an astoundingly entertaining experience that takes place in the sparkling, gilded and opulent Cave of Wonders featuring the Genie played superlatively by Korie Lee Blossey, Aladdin, exceptionally played by Jonah Ho’okano, and the easy-on-the-eyes Ensemble.
"Friend Like Me"

Another highlight is an enchanting romantic scene that occurs in the second act in which Jonah Ho’okano and Kaenaonalani Kekoa, who plays the desirable Princess Jasmine, soar over the stage on a magic carpet singing the gorgeous duet, Oscar and Grammy award-winning hit “A Whole New World.”

The jaw-dropping costumes designed by Tony-nominated Gregg Barnes are a sight to behold. Brilliantly-hued lavish silky gowns adorn the women cast members in most scenes while unbuttoned vests and pastel harem pants form the main attire for many of the men in the cast.  And if you enjoy seeing buff guys in outfits like these, that could be one of your fulfilled wishes.

As the loveable and good-hearted title character, Jonah Ho’okano shines.  It’s a grueling part as he is onstage for virtually all of the production—singing, dancing, acting, constantly in motion—and he excels throughout. His vocals are top-notch in “Proud of Your Boy,”  “A Million Miles Away” and the aforementioned “A Whole New World” with Kaenaonalani Kekoa. Both performers display strong chemistry during their scenes adding to the endearment of the show.

For her part, the lovely Ms. Kekoa as Jasmine who is tired of being pressured into marrying a suitor she does not want, displays beautiful vocals in the ballad, “These Palace Walls.”

Korie Lee Blossey as Genie turns in a tour-de-force performance. Genie is a fast-talking, high-energy acrobatic, ancient dude, relegated to living in his lamp where he yearns for freedom. Comical and improvisational at times, Mr. Blossey delivers in high-octane form. His vocals soar in “Arabian Nights,” the blockbuster number “Friends Like Me,” and “Somebody’s Got Your Back.” Like Mr. Ho’okano, he is a major factor in the success of this production.

Speaking of on-stage chemistry, Jonathan Weir as the antagonist Jafar, the mean-spirited, conniving, deep-voiced advisor to the Sultan (Jerald Vincent) and Reggie De Leon as Iago, Jafar’s obedient sycophant, form a hilarious comedy one-two punch. 

Though the Jafar character is humorless,  Mr. Weir sets up Mr. De leon perfectly leading to laughs. Many of the puns and punchlines in the show come from  Mr. De Leon and are spot-on in terms of timing and delivery.  In addition, Mr. Weir demonstrates his strong baritone in “Prince Ali.”

Jonah Ho’okano as Aladdin
Then there are Aladdin’s good buddies and fellow street rats: food-obsessed Babkak (played by Zach Bencal), nervous Omar (Ben Chavez), and swole tough guy Kaseem (Colt Prattes). So glad that Mr. Prattes and many of his co-performers located gyms along the tour. Oy!

The trio along with Mr. Ho’okano dance and sing proficiently and are outstanding in the aptly titled “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” “High Adventure” and “Somebody’s Got Your Back” with Mr. Blossey.

Jerald Vincent does a fine job as the widowed, old-school Sultan, the ruler of Agrabah and Jasmine’s father. His one song, “Prince Ali,” is performed well.

Erik Hernandez as the Shop Owner, Bobby Daye as Razoul, Cameron Hobbs and Albert Jennings as Henchmen, Albert Jennings for the performance reviewed as Prince Abdullah, and Keisha Gilles as Fortune Teller perform proficiently.

The  singing and dancing from the Ensemble are amazing and full of energy. A special shout-out to Max B. Ehrlich, who returns to the Hippodrome following a wonderful performance in Mamma Mia!

An animated film such as Aladdin often features a palette of splashy colors and dazzling images. It’s a challenge to replicate that on a theater stage. This production, under the direction of Casey Nicholaw and an amazingly creative and innovative technical crew with a talented cast did just that.

Fulfill one of your wishes and go see this awesome show at the Hippodrome, but hurry, it closes a few days after Thanksgiving.

Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Aladdin runs through December 1 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com, BaltimoreHippodrome.com, call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Photos: Deen van Meer

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