Theater Review: What ‘Aladdin’ Lacks in Substance, It Makes Up For in Spectacular Visuals

Nobody teases Disney quite like Disney. Take a movie like Enchanted, for example. Enchanted pokes fun at and references nearly every other princess movie out there from Snow White to Beauty and the Beast. So, it should come as no surprise that while the stage adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin pays homage to the 1992 animated feature film wholeheartedly, it also stacks the show with references to other Disney movie franchises and pokes fun at itself. And that is one aspect of the national touring production of Aladdin, now playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center, that kids might miss, but adults might savor.

Inspired by an 18th century Middle Eastern folktale, Aladdin follows the adventures of a young street rat with a heart of gold, whose life is forever changed after finding a magic lamp and unearthing a Genie. In 1992, Disney released the animated version of Aladdin. Earlier this year, Disney’s live-action film version starring Will Smith opened. Disney’s stage adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 2011, has the musical and visual feel of the animated film and is quintessential Disney. Big musical numbers, colorful costumes, glittery sets, and even a flying magic carpet make for a visual feast.

In this production, Jonah Ho’okano plays the hero, Aladdin. His melodic tenor soars through some of the production’s more beautiful numbers, including Proud of Your Boy, a song penned by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman for the 1992 movie but cut during editing. Kaenaonalani Kekoa is making her national debut and is feisty and sweet as Jasmine. Vocally, however, she is inconsistent and gets overshadowed by Ho’okano’s smooth and controlled timbre, particularly during their duet A Million Miles Away.

Of course, every Disney hero needs a villain, and perhaps nobody sports a sinister, evil laugh better than Patrick R. Brown (Jafar). Brown is no stranger to Disney villainy having previously played Scar both on Broadway and on tour in Disney’s The Lion King. He also has quite a bit of experience playing the role of Jafar, both overseas and on Broadway, and that comes through in this performance. Playing Jafar’s sidekick Iago (not a parrot, but a person) is the very funny Reggie de Leon. De Leon’s witticism and brand of physical comedy are spot-on, which makes his performance one of the most memorable.

But like both movies, this show belongs to the man in blue, the Genie. When I first saw Aladdin on Broadway with James Monroe Iglehart, it was hard to imagine anybody taking ownership of this role quite like Robin Williams. Iglehart did, and so does Korie Lee Blossey in this production. Blossey stepped into the role last month in Charlotte, and although it seems Blossey is still working out some kinks, like Iglehart, his stage presence, comedic timing and delivery make the show. This is a physically demanding role and pacing seems to be Blossey’s only issue, a quibble that he will surely work out with time and experience.

On a side note, sports scientists measured the heart rate and respiratory rate of Major Attaway, the current Genie on Broadway, and determined that he exerts as much physical energy during a single musical number as a marathon runner. To find out more about ESPN’s Genie experiment, see the video below.

Fans of the 1992 movie, will delight in the nostalgia of Aladdin. Little kids will find the show to be pure magic. And while I wasn’t particularly wowed by this production overall, and parts of it felt a little flat, I was impressed by some of its visual elements. My only wish was that it counterbalanced the spectacle with a little more depth and substance to hold my interest for the full two hours.

Aladdin runs through October 26th at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Lottery tickets priced at $25 are also available. For more information, visit https://www.dpacnc.com/.

Click here to read the RDU on Stage interview with Aladdin dance captain and swing Michael Callahan.

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