Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Aida"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"AIDA"

music by Elton John / lyrics by Tim Rice
book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang
directed by Schele Williams
choreographed by Nick Kenkel
musical direction by Aron Accurso

Aida … Angela Williams
Radames … Sebastian Arcelus
Amneris … Emily Drennan
Mereb … Eric LaJuan Summers
Zoser … John Antony
Nehebka … Janelle Neal
Pharaoh … Paul Aguirre
Amonastro …Ty Robinson

Ensemble:

Jahmal Adderley; Melanie Allen; Maia Evwaraye-Griffin;
Ben Franklin; David Glaspie; Aaron Hamilton (Dance Captain);
Louisa Krause; Alison Paterson; Mayte Natalio; Micah Shepard;
Damien DeShaun Smith; Ericka Yang; Dashaun Young

Orchestra:

Musical Director … Aron Accurso
Assistant Musical Director …Rob Manthey
Conductor; Keyboard 3 …Aron Accurso
Keyboard 1 … Eric Svejcar
Keyboard 2 … Lisa Raposa
Guitar … Eric Christensen
Bass … STeve Gilewski
Drums … Steven Guinta
Percussion … Jon Gleich
Horn … Brian Gardell

The Ogunquit Playhouse’s stirring production of AIDA, Elton John and Tim Rice’s retelling of Mr. Verdi’s grand opera, confirms that their musical is a solid creation in its own right. Like a number of today’s musicals, AIDA is a pop/rock concert in disguise but it offers pure pleasure and the occasional heartbeat as did the Moon/June musical, once upon a stage.

Librettists Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang retain Mr. Verdi’s star-crossed love story between Radames, an Egyptian warrior, and Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess (here, she is Nubian), further complicated by Radames being betrothed to Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter and Aida’s mistress --- and they filter it through political correctness: Aida becomes a warrior-princess, replacing Mr. Verdi’s confused waif; Amneris, once her rival, is now a good sport over how Love shuffles the deck; Radames remains a singing jockstrap but with a growing social conscience. On the plus side, Ms. Woolverton and the Messrs. Falls and Hwang flesh out how two enemies become lovers; on the minus side, the pivotal role of Aida’s father Amonastro is reduced to a non-singing walk-on and Radames is given a nasty, plotting father named Zoser (one of those traditional elders standing in the way of under-30 love). The original ending is softened to send audiences out with a smile as well as a tear and all is pro-Nubia down to the last chorus member, enslaved and yet free. There may be a lack of authenticity in the air (an enslaved princess and a warrior bound in service to the Pharaoh would find it difficult to simply run off and dwell elsewhere in happiness and, considering much of Egypt’s glory was built on the backs of slaves, Amneris proves to be a surprisingly benevolent ruler) but such nitpicks are overridden by the Messrs. John and Rice’s sweeping solos, duets and ensembles, especially the love theme “Elaborate Lives”, the stunning Act One finale “The Gods Love Nubia” and Amneris’ reflective “I Know the Truth” --- and one can always shrug and say that Mr. Verdi’s plot was just as silly.

The Ogunquit production has been shrewdly designed by Richard Ellis with economy going hand in hand with Egypt’s vast, open spaces and it is gloriously lit by Richard Latta in solid colors that reflect AIDA’s emotional as well as climatic temperature. Director Schele Williams keeps the action flowing smoothly throughout, including the minimal set changes (here, detailed characterizations would only slow things down), and choreographer Nick Kenkel has devised some tight, kinetic dance numbers (my sole disappointment being that “The Gods Loved Nubia” lacks the swirling circle-within-a-circle that made the North Shore’s own finale so unforgettable); blessedly, Amneris’ showstopper “My Strongest Suit” does not dissolve into mere Camp.

The fresh, fearless cast is golden from top to bottom, wrapping themselves in the musical’s seductive textures and shining through them like beacons so that each soaring note, no matter the launching pad, cannot fail to thrill the ear. Angela Williams’ cute, petite Aida is a deceptive shell for a pop-diva regality that erupts into wave upon wave of gospel-based intensity; amazingly, Ms. Williams’ instrument can scale down to lyrical intimacy when required without breathlessness or strain. Emily Drennan’s Amneris fascinates due to Ms. Drennan’s not using “My Strongest Suit” as Square One and flouncing through the role for easy laughs (though she is an appealing comedienne) but, rather, keeps Amneris’ untapped dignity in focus so that her opening and closing narration are consistent and believably linked; Sebastian Arcelus’s Radames may be little more than a long-haired youth who suddenly finds himself a rock star but he sings sweetly, if nasally, and between Mr. Arcelus and Ms. Williams their two renditions of “Elaborate Lives” had tears running down my cheeks, they were so beautiful. I cannot remember when was the last time I cried during a theatre performance, if at all, but I did so, here --- and with pleasure --- over these two doomed innocents.

The Ogunquit house was only half-filled on the afternoon I attended which could mean that there are tickets still available if and when you decide to attend, and you should as the Ogunquit production is near-definitive and cannot currently be matched on the Boston scene --- Boston's home-grown talent is still committed to chamber musicals, by choice or by necessity, and there are few black singer-actresses in the area who can take on the title role and even less dancers of all colors who can fill AIDA’s sandals.

"Aida" (5-23 July)
OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE
Route 1, Ogunquit, ME
1 (207) 646-5511

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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