Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
There are probably few these days who are not familiar with the 1992 Disney animated film or its newer live-action remake, starring Will Smith as the Genie. The animated film marked the final collaboration of famed composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. After Ashman's tragic death in 1991, lyricist Tim Rice finished the lyrics, and the result was an Academy Award-winning score, including Best Song winner "A Whole New World."
The original creative team wrote a number of songs that didn't make it into the finished film. When work began on a live musical adaptation, the forgotten numbers were dusted off and handed to bookwriter Chad Beguelin, who provided lyrics for new songs created for the stage production (also with Menken's music). The standout among these additions is the lovely "Proud of Your Boy," in which Aladdin speaks to the parents he has lost.
While Mr. Beguelin has made some alterations to the plot to make it work better for a live production, the essential story is unchanged, drawing from Arabic folktales collected in "One Thousand and One Nights," in particular, "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp." Petty thief Aladdin (Jonah Ho'okano) parkours his way across two-time Tony winner Bob Crowley's efficient sets until he discovers a magical Genie in a lamp (Korie Lee Blossey) who grants him three wishes. Standing in his way is the evil sorcerer Jafar (Patrick R. Brown) who, with his henchman Iago (Reggie De Leon), wants to steal the lamp and its powers in his quest to dethrone the Sultan (Jerald Vincent).
Along the way, Aladdin falls in love with the Sultan's daughter Jasmine (Kaenaonalani Kekoa), and the two of them discover "A Whole New World" of possibilities, literally floating through Natasha Katz's lighting design and Jim Steinmeyer's illusion design, which add a number of truly cinematic touches to the production. Even more amazing are the costumes by Gregg Barnes, which see the visual bid of the animated film and raise it in detail and splendor.
For those who recall Abu, Aladdin's mischievous monkey friend from the film, three human characters are here in his place. Though Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Ben Chavez), and Kassim (Colt Prattes) don't really enhance the story, the actors give their all and pull off some of the best comedic moments in the show, especially in their number "High Adventure." The characters of Jafar and Iago might deserve some of this stage time, though; they don't get the musical attention many other Disney villains enjoy.
As Aladdin, Jonah Ho'okano is wonderful both in voice and characterization, charming in every smile and song. Equally stunning is Kaenaonālani Kekoa, who, as Jasmine, wins the hearts of audiences with her beautiful alto voice. Having played Jafar on Broadway, Patrick R. Brown is a complete pro as a Disney villain; he has also played Scar in Disney's The Lion King. And as his henchman Iago, Reggie De Leon milks every comedic moment. He seemed to be the kids' favorite at the performance I saw, judging by the laughter every time he was on stage.
Broadway veteran and Tony winner Casey Nicholaw is at the helm as director and choreographer. Though there is not much in the way of memorable choreography, Nicholaw can always be counted on for at least one rousing number, and he delivers in spades with the Genie's showstopping number "Friend Like Me." And of course, what would this production be without a proper Genie? Korie Lee Blossey pays homage to the iconic Robin Williams (who voiced the Genie in the animated film) while adding some fresh notes. But, at my performance, Mr. Blossey seemed winded almost the entire show, and at times he just marked the choreography. Many of his lines, particularly when he was singing, were difficult to understand, giving the audience little opportunity to enjoy the punchlines or show their appreciation.
For those who are enamored of the original film, Aladdin may seem like a visit with an old friend. For those who are experiencing this story for the first time, be ready to be swept away on a carpet ride of fun and adventure that I am sure will continue to delight audiences for years to come.
Aladdin runs through through October 26, 2019, presented by SunTrust Broadway at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham NC. For tickets and information, www.dpacnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit www.aladdinthemusical.com.
Music: Howard Menken