‘Aladdin’ lights up the skies over Baltimore

Flying tricks, stage magic spread wonder at the Hippodrome

On stage, Aladdin starts out as the perfect musical for nine-year-olds. But by the time its two swooning lovers have hopped aboard a flying carpet for a trip to the moon, all moms and dads in the audience are sure to be right up there with them, giddy as grade-schoolers on Valentine’s Day.

Kaenaonalani Kekoa and Jonah Ho’Okano star in the national tour of ‘Aladdin’ at the Hippodrome Theatre.

That’s the true magic occurring nightly now at the Hippodrome Theatre. If you missed this first-rate U.S. touring company when it stopped at the Kennedy Center in August, consider this a second chance at making amends.

What parent doesn’t know by heart the charming 1992 Disney cartoon? Even so, the re-imagined 2014 Broadway musical — with book by Chad Beguelin, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Beguelin, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice — reached some unexpected heights. Listen closely and you’ll enjoy a sultan’s ransom of new puns and some fresh tunes by Menken to show off his choice Oscar-winner, “A Whole New World.”

There’s still a bit too much paint-by-numbers on stage at first. Once the material decides it’s better than an evening cruise-ship attraction, however, it opens the floodgates on enough savvy stagecraft to overcome any fictional desert oasis.

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (who counts both Book of Mormon and Mean Girls among his credits) has enlisted a range of Disney-caliber stage “imagineers” to bring this property all their “tongue in sheik” best.

I preferred Scenic Designer Bob Crowley’s stylish backdrops to the cartoon set pieces that are meant to represent the marketplace of Agrabah. But that fabulous Cave of Wonders set, with its reflective shards and multiple moving parts highlighted by Lighting Designer Natasha Katz, was easily one of the standout achievements of the theatrical season.

The wizardry behind that flying carpet was nothing less than a marvel of illusion-making, thanks to Hudson Theatrical Associates and special effects designer Jim Steinmeyer. How was it done? If pressed, I’d have to claim it was sorcery.

Not all of the jaw-dropping “Did you see that?” spectacle here derives from its clever design team. Director Nicholaw proves to be a modern Scheherazade at filling the stage from wing to wing with stories, thanks to an admirable cast of go-for-broke entertainers.

Korie Lee Blossey as the Genie welcomes audiences to the U.S. tour of ‘Aladdin,’ now at the Hippodrome Theatre.

Did the ancient Middle East have banana trees? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Aladdin has a dandy Top Banana in Korie Lee Blossey as the genial Genie. It’s a powerhouse role that animates the whole show, and Blossey dons those roomy pantaloons to command the stage like a vintage vaudevillian.

The role of Aladdin, the light-fingered street urchin who schemes for the hand of a princess, is adorably played by Jonah Ho’Okano. Adding to the illusion of his being the lead singer in a Disney-style “boy band” are his three amusing cohorts – Zach Bencal, Ben Chavez, and Colt Prattes. Together they elevate some of Menken’s new songs to suitably entertaining score additions.

It’s while singing love duets like “A Million Miles Away” opposite Kaenaonalan Kekoa as Princess Jasmine, though, that Ho’Okano hits his leading-man stride. Both lead actors enchant us with the simplicity of their vocal prowess and characterizations. Ah, yes, first love was always a storybook matter.

Tall and spindly Jonathan Weir makes a cartoonishly sinister Jafar, and is most amusingly paired with the squat and round Iago, played by Reggie De Leon, who has been with the show since its Broadway days.

As choreographer, Casey Nicholaw proves himself up to the challenges of a well-oiled dance ensemble, whether it’s twirling through bazaars, doing back flips in palaces, or tap-dancing on sand. Everyone seems to be charged with the same prime mission to please.

There’s any number of places a nine-year-old might want to drag you to this holiday season. Know that this Aladdin has to rank among the top two or three.

Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.

Aladdin plays through December 1 in the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore. Charge-by-phone at 800-982-ARTS or go here.



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