Kaena Kekoa, who plays Jasmine, says she had "the biggest crush" on Jonah Hoʻokano, who plays Aladdin, when they were kids

By Michelle Boudin
October 10, 2019 07:45 PM

Kaena Kekoa was working as a performing arts teacher and living with her parents in her native Hawaii last year when she heard from friends that a Disney casting call was coming to the area.

Having grown up performing in school musicals and coming from a family full of musicians, the recent college graduate decided at the last minute to give it a shot.

But Kekoa, 23, never expected it would lead to a starring role in Aladdin — and nightly performances next to her childhood crush and longtime friend Jonah Hoʻokano.

“I had the biggest crush on him when we were kids. It was like a showmance,” Kekoa tells PEOPLE. “I was 11 years old and, oh my goodness, he was so cute and he was just a tall guy who could sing.”

Ho’okano, who now plays the Aladdin to her Jasmine, says he was aware of Kekoa’s crush, but “didn’t know what to make of it because she was so shy back then.”

The two first met when they were cast as the leads in a school production of Fiddler on the Roof; Kekoa was 11, and Ho’okano is two years older.

“I was completely terrified, but Jonah was always so calm. He was a professional even back then,” she says.

Kaena Kekoa and Jonah Ho'Okano in Aida
Disney Theatrical Productions

Ho’okano, 25, tells PEOPLE that he grew up singing, and spent plenty of time watching TV as a child, as both of his parents worked two jobs.

“My mom decided to throw me into a theater camp, and I never really stopped singing after that,” he says.

Keana Kekoa

The pair grew close over the years, regularly costarring in local productions and staying in touch, even after Ho’okano left Hawaii to chase his dream of acting professionally, and Kekoa went to college.

Over the years, Hoʻokano tried, again and again, to nail down the role of Aladdin, but missed out several times due to a gig performing on a cruise ship.

RELATED: Mena Massoud Hopes ‘Aladdin’ Will Boost Middle Eastern Representation in Hollywood

He finally managed to make it to New York City to audition for his dream role last year, and was at the final round of callbacks when he ran into a familiar face.

“I saw Kaena’s dad first — he was in the hallway and it was so bizarre to see him there,” Ho’okano recalls. “And then she steps out of the bathroom and we lost it. She ran at me — she charged at me, and I picked her up off the ground. We auditioned together, and we were both just stunned and freaking out and catching up because we hadn’t spoken face to face in five or six years.”

RELATED VIDEO: Mena Massoud Hopes ‘Aladdin’ Will Boost Middle Eastern Representation in Hollywood

Kekoa adds, “It was just fun. As soon as we walked in, he told the director, and it was just insane. He was telling them all how we did Aida as kids. Then we read a scene together, and it was like nothing had changed.”

Kekoa locked down the part of Jasmine, and Ho’okano got the job as Aladdin, meaning the two childhood pals are now touring the country and performing together nightly.

RELATED: Aladdin and Jasmine Duet on Original Song ‘Desert Moon’ in Deleted Scene from Disney Remake

“I think the best part is being able to do it with another person from Hawaii, and seeing our culture represented,” Kekoa tells PEOPLE. “And of course, it’s just a lot of fun. It’s like a hug from home. You can feel the aloha spirit.”

Aladdin is currently on tour in Durham, North Carolina, and will put on a string of performances in Providence, Rhode Island, Baltimore, Maryland, East Lansing, Michigan, and Tampa, Florida, through the new year.

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