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Review: ‘Aladdin’ at the Straz Center works like magic

The Disney musical will win you over, thanks to imaginative effects and a couple of lively stars at the center.
Kaenaonalani Kekoa (Jasmine) and Jonah Ho'okano (Aladdin) in the Straz Center's production of "Aladdin" in Tampa. [Disney]
Kaenaonalani Kekoa (Jasmine) and Jonah Ho'okano (Aladdin) in the Straz Center's production of "Aladdin" in Tampa. [Disney]
Published Dec. 23, 2019
Updated Dec. 23, 2019

Take a little animation and a few sharp songs, add a dash of magic, and abracadabra: That’s basically the Walt Disney formula.

It’s also a decent description of Aladdin, one of Disney’s latest Broadway blockbusters, running through the holidays at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

It is big and broad, like a (you guessed it) cartoon come to life, and it doesn’t ask you to think too hard about the whole new world we all live in. The music by legendary composers Alan Menken, Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman is still sharp and snappy. You know the hits, you love the hits — it’s not more complicated than that.

Except, from a technical standpoint, it is — and that’s what makes the musical fly.

Aladdin is the story of Princess Jasmine (Kaenaonalani Kekoa), who, against her father’s wishes, doesn’t want to marry a prince, and instead falls for the titular street urchin (Jonah Ho’okano). Aladdin discovers a magic lamp whose Genie (Korie Lee Blossey) turns him into a prince, so that he might have a shot with Jasmine.

Quick disclaimer: Due to traffic in Tampa, I got to my seat about 20 minutes late, missing the first three songs: Arabian Nights, One Jump Ahead and Proud of Your Boy. But the musical hews pretty close to the plot of the 1992 animated film, so it was easy to jump in and feel caught up.

That said, this is a play where you don’t want to look away for too long. The staging is delightfully inventive, and full of actual magic tricks — Disney Imagineering at its finest. Costumes change in the blink of an eye; items and characters appear out of nowhere. The set switches, too. One minute you’re in the middle of a boisterous, clattering Agrabah market; the next you’re out in the sparse desert dunes; the next you’re ensconced in the opulent golden cathedral of the Cave of Wonders.

When Aladdin and Jasmine take their seats on the magic carpet for their still-stunning duet A Whole New World, they really seem to soar above the stage, into a dazzlingly deep array of stars. You will look for wires and you still won’t see them. Sorcery, I tell you!

Genie (Korie Lee Blossey) and Aladdin (Jonah Ho'okano) perform "Friend Like Me" in the national tour of "Aladdin," running at the Straz Center in Tampa through Jan. 5. [Deen van Meer]

As Aladdin, Ho’okano is nimble and witty, radiating charm and confidence, an easy match for Kekoa’s Jasmine. The actors have a natural chemistry you can’t manufacture — they were childhood friends in Hawaii who just happened to get matched up for this tour — and their voices ring like bells on A Whole New World.

There are other highlights: a cartoonishly villainous Jafar (Jonathan Weir); Aladdin’s buddies Omar (Ben Chavez), Kassim (Colt Prattes) and Babkak (an especially droll Zach Bencal), who shine in two cleverly choreographed Ashman demos revived for the musical (Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim and High Adventure).

But the only role and character who’s really on Aladdin’s level is Genie.

The reason Robin Williams’ voice performance in the 1992 film was so beloved was that Genie seemed written for him, designed to thrive on the unique manic energy he possessed. The role looms large because it’s all there on the page, but it takes everything you’ve got to bring it to life.

The glittery Blossey plays Genie with flamboyant joy, roaring and cackling and huffing and puffing like a cross between T.D. Jakes and Cee Lo Green. It’s a cornucopia of vintage razzle-dazzle, with cartwheels and soft-shoe and fourth-wall-breaking showmanship. Even when demanding songs like Friend Like Me overwhelm him, the audience is inherently on his side, giving Blossey perhaps the loudest cheers at curtain.

That Aladdin is in Tampa during the extended winter holidays, when school is out of session, is a gift. Save for a couple of pops and flashes and a brief scary moment in the Cave of Wonders, it’s a very youngster-friendly show. You’ll almost certainly see a tiny Jasmine or two in the audience, especially at matinees. It runs 2 ½ hours (including intermission), but it flies by. Kids shouldn’t have a problem sitting through it.

If you’ve ever wanted to introduce your child or grandchild to the magic of live musical theater, you could do much worse than Aladdin. If there’s one thing Disney knows how to deliver, it’s magic.

IF YOU GO

ALADDIN

Through Jan. 5. $29 and up. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. For showtimes, visit strazcenter.org.

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