All In With Aladdin

It’s a whole new world for Jonah Ho‘okano and Kaena Kekoa, who are cast as Aladdin and Jasmine, respectively, in the North American tour of “Aladdin: The Hit Broadway Musical.”

While the North American tour of Disney’s Aladdin takes us to a whole new world with a hundred thousand things to see, its leading stars — Jonah Ho‘okano and Kaena Kekoa — are actually back to where they used to be, sharing the stage together like they did before as youth in the local theater scene. Nevertheless, it’s still a magical ride for the two who are living their dreams on stage — Ho‘okano as Aladdin and Kekoa as princess Jasmine — in Disney’s Aladdin: The Hit Broadway Musical.

While Ho‘okano just joined the company in August when the musical was playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the 20 12 Kamehameha graduate actually has been Aladdin for the past seven years after he was discovered at an audition in Hawai‘i.

Jonah Ho‘okano with mom Tina and dad Glenn aboard the Disney Cruise Line Disney Fantasy.

“By the end of the week, they told me, ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to fly you out to LA,'” Ho‘okano recalls.

Since then, it’s been a thrilling adventure, starting with Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular at Disney California Adventure Park from 2013 to 2015. He then played Aladdin in a special Valentine’s Day event in Tokyo before sailing off on Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Fantasy for its version of the Aladdin musical for two years.

From there, he took a year off in New York, but is now back as Aladdin. However, this time it’s really come full circle.

“Funny enough, me and Kaena met playing opposite each other when I was 13 and she was 10 or 11 doing Fiddler on the Roof,” Ho‘okano remembers. “She also played Aida and I played Radames. It’s kind of crazy, we’ve starred opposite each other twice before.”

Jonah Ho‘okano as Aladdin.

As a kid, Ho‘okano was an artist and enjoyed painting and drawing. But then one day, his mom, Tina, enrolled him in a church theater camp with Hawai‘i Education of the Arts (HEARTS), marking the beginning of his incredible performing arts journey.

“I fought her tooth and nail, I did not want to go, I did not want to audition, and after my first show I never stopped,” he says. “From that point on, I was doing two to three shows a year. I did a lot of theater at Palikū with the late Ron Bright, and then with Mānoa Valley and Kamehameha and at Sacred Hearts with the Saint Louis team.

“Before it was apparent that I wanted to be a performer, I was just a kid who liked to draw and sing, and my dad was a sportsman and tried to put me in every sport under the sun,” says Ho‘okano. “God bless him, I rejected it so strongly it must’ve broke his heart. But once my mom finally figured out what it was that I loved and saw I was hungry for it, my dad supported it and would drive me around and take me to all these auditions.”

After high school, Ho‘okano planned to attend Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, but deferred his acceptance for a year because he couldn’t afford it. So, he went to Windward Community College for a semester and then, as destiny would have it, Disney showed up.

Kaena (front left) with her family Ku‘ulei, Kamanukea, (back) dad Kordell, brother Kalaniaukai with his wife, Rayna Kekoa, mom Tymmie Keala-Ah Chong and stepdad Bruce Ah Chong. PHOTO COURTESY KAENA KEKOA

“It was pretty obvious that if I wasn’t going to a conservatory or some kind of art school, I wasn’t going to be happy,” says Ho‘okano. “That’s when Aladdin offered me a job.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve been doing with this character for these past seven years or so, and I’m very proud to be a Native Hawaiian doing it. It’s surreal, and it’s a dream to get to do it with someone like Kaena. There are a number of obstacles that I face on this show on a daily basis, but whenever I’m on stage with Kaena, everything is so natural because we already have that connection. It’s like a hug from home.”

The North American tour has shows scheduled through April 2020, with its next stop in Baltimore this week before soaring over to Michigan in December, which will be extra special as that’s when Ho‘okano’s family will finally get to see their shining star.

“My mom was born in Detroit and raised in Kalamazoo, so I have a lot of family throughout Michigan,” notes Ho‘okano, who is Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Irish, German and English. “It’s going to be crazy when they come.

“This is the biggest version of this show that I’ve been a part of, and it’s so gorgeous and breathtaking and magical. The costumes, the sets, the design are spectacular. It’s mind-blowing every time I put on a costume. I’m terrified to death that I’m going to lose all these gorgeous beadings and crystals or something. It’s so glamorous, and I get to ride an actual flying carpet. It’s not the first time that I’ve done that by any means, but this is my favorite version of the flying carpet. It’s pure magic.”

When the tour eventually closes, Ho‘okano plans to spend a couple of weeks in Hawai‘i, which he says will always be home. Then, it’s back to life as a performer, hopefully in New York.

“Between every contract I take, I try to spend a week or two back at home just to reset my soul,” says Ho‘okano. “A lot of lounging and laying on the couch not doing much, seeing friends and catching up with people. Hawai‘i will always be home, but when you make musical theater your profession you kind of know you’ll never be able to live at home.

“I do intend on calling New York my next home after I get off the road. I would love to get to perform this show in New York, but I’m open to whatever the next step may be. I’m just quite literally living a dream.”

Like Ho‘okano, Kekoa also was discovered by Disney in Hawai‘i when she went to an open casting call for Disney on Broadway in January. Within just a month, she was in New York City for a final call-back for Jasmine, and in April, became a real-life Disney princess, making her professional theater debut at Eccles Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“When they called (to let me know that I got it), I was very calm. Then, I hung up the phone and bawled in a corner in my room,” remembers Kekoa. “I couldn’t believe it. This is something I dreamt about my entire life and didn’t think I could do for a living. It seemed so far away.

“So, when I got the call, it was like, wow, I get to perform and I’m getting paid to do what I love.”

A 2014 graduate of Sacred Hearts Academy, Kekoa grew up singing in church with her family and was involved with the theater program in school. She earned her degree in teacher education from Point Loma Nazarene University in 2018, and was a visual and performing arts teacher at Waolani Judd Nazarene School in Honolulu.

“After I graduated (from college last year), I moved back home with no intention of leaving Hawai‘i,” says Kekoa, who is Hawaiian, Chinese, German, Irish, English and Dutch. “I’m a homebody. Hawai‘i is where my heart is. Now, everything pretty much changed. My life took a complete 180. It all kind of happened really fast, and I had to adapt to tour life.

“The best part of it would have to be working with such talented and professional people and being able to learn from them. Also, seeing people at the stage door, especially people from the islands. That’s been the thing that has warmed my heart the most, seeing people from home. That’s what I miss the most about Hawai‘i — the people and their spirit.”

Friends and family cheered for her in Salt Lake City, and again in Sacramento, where one night she had about 40 people in the audience.

“It was insane,” she says. “There was a bunch of chee hoos, and it just warmed my heart. They brought lei and it was like graduation all over again. (The other cast members) were like, ‘Kaena, why do you have flowers around your neck?’ That’s how we do it in Hawai‘i.”

When she’s home, Kekoa says she enjoys spending time with family, singing Hawaiian music and going to the beach (her top spots are Kaimana Beach in Waikīkī and Mā‘ili Beach in West O‘ahu). She also loves Hawaiian food, and likes eating at Highway Inn and Helena’s.

“Pipikaula and fresh poi, if I had those two things in my life every day, I would be happy,” she says.

Kekoa lists Up as her favorite Disney movie, and Ariel from The Little Mermaid as her favorite Disney princess. But she listened to Aladdin a lot, too, because her younger sister’s favorite was Jasmine.

“We grew up singing the songs,” she remembers. “My dad would put on shows in the living room and put up backdrops and lights, and we would sing songs karaoke style.

“Disney plays a big part in my performance life. I used to lock myself up in the bathroom and sing Disney songs every day until someone would have to knock on the door and kick me out.”

Surprisingly, Kekoa never took voice lessons. Her performing arts training comes from shows she did in elementary, middle and high school, and she was involved with the concert choir while in college. Her passion for music can be credited to her parents, which was also instilled in her three siblings. Brother Aukai is the worship leader at church, older sister Kamanukea is a music teacher and younger sister Ku‘ulei is studying musical theater at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

“Music runs in my family,” says Kekoa. “My mom raised us on Hawaiian music. She plays ‘lele, along with my dad and my stepdad. We grew up singing songs of Hawai‘i, and with my dad being a pastor, I grew up on the worship team, too.

“Performing was the dream and I’m living it right now. My next thing would be to go home and share what I learned with the people of Hawai‘i and the children of Hawai‘i.”