Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Aida"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 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 Stafford Arima
choreography by Patricia Wilcox
musical direction by Andrew Graham

Amneris … Janine LaManna
Radames … Brad Anderson
Aida … Montego Glover
Mereb … Derrick Baskin
Zoser … John Schiappa
Pharaoh … James Bodge
Nehebka … Q Smith
Amonastro … J. Bernard Calloway
Ensemble:

Marie-France Arcilla; Edward M. Barker; James Bodge;
J. Bernard Calloway; Lori Ann Ferreri; David Garcia;
David W. Gilleo; Mindy Haywood; John Hoffman;
Michelle Marmolejo; Darius Nichols; Krystle N. Pyram;
Q Smith; Culen R. Titmas; Todd L. Underwood

Youth Ensemble:

Breanna Bradlee; Tory Bradlee; Nicholas Christopher;
Joshua David Fales; Jaclyn Sabogal

Orchestra:

Conductor; Keyboard … Andrew Graham
Flute; Alto Flute … Peggy Friedland
Oboe; English Horn … Andrea Bonsignore
French Horn … John Aubrey
Cello … Sandy Kiefer
Guitar … Robert Stanton
Keyboards … John Conway; Janet Hood
Bass … David Buda
Drums … James Gwin
Percussion … Doug Lippincott

When future generations designate a Golden Age of Millennium Musicals, Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA may well be near the top of the list. This revision of Verdi’s similarly-named opera is fun, stirring, and has a goodly clutch of tunes; the show is neither deep nor profound --- like many of today’s musicals, it’s a pop/rock concert in disguise --- but now that Top 40 songwriters are replacing the Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths of yester-century, it’s nice to know that such efforts as AIDA can offer pure pleasure and the occasional heartbeat as did the Moon/June variety, once upon a stage.

Librettists Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang retain the opera’s plotline --- a star-crossed love in the age of the Pharaohs between Radames, an Egyptian warrior, and Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess (here, she is Nubian), further complicated by Radames being coveted by Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter and Aida’s mistress --- and they filter it through political correctness: Aida becomes a warrior princess, replacing Verdi’s confused waif; Amneris, her once-steely rival, is now a good sport about how Love shuffles the deck; Radames remains a singing jockstrap but with a growing social conscience --- Verdi’s hero wants to lead his armies into Ethiopia, slaughter Aida’s people, return in triumph and ask the Pharaoh for Aida as a reward (!). On the plus side, Ms. Woolverton and the Messrs. Falls and Hwang flesh out how two enemies become lovers --- Verdi’s triangle hits the stage already in place; 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) and a sidekick Mereb who, if this were a cartoon feature (AIDA being a Disney product), would probably have been a hippo, a crocodile or some other Nile creature. The original ending is softened to send audiences out with an “ah” and all is pro-Nubia from its omission of a triumphal procession (a highlight in the opera) down to the last chorus member, enslaved and yet free (according to Aida and her subjects, Nubia is the Great Good Place; Verdi’s librettist chooses to have Ethiopia at war with Egypt). There is also a lack of authenticity in the air, common in today's musicals: a enslaved princess and a warrior bound in service to the Pharaoh would find it difficult to simply run off and dwell elsewhere in happiness but such nitpicks may go unheard: AIDA serves up easily-consumed fare for those who wouldn’t be caught dead in an opera house and one can always shrug and say that the original plot was just as silly.

AIDA’s strength and appeal rests on the Elton John-Tim Rice score: Mr. John, a balladeer-rocker from the 1970s who is still going strong, pours his agreeably poppy sounds over Tim Rice’s largely reflective lyrics (the orchestrations dutifully support the words). There’s a dud or two --- Zoser has a slithery number set to a Caribbean beat that add little to his iconography, and there’s a mad plunge into camp as Amneris and her handmaidens work the runway modeling bizzarro outfits that put Wigstock to shame --- but there are also sweeping solos and duets for Aida and Radames when the plot recedes and they sing for singing’s sake (i.e. in concert), especially in “Elaborate Lives” and its doomed reprise. I cannot predict if any of these songs will grow their own legs, but I was held by them, then and there, which is far more important.

I missed the original Broadway production but am told it was visually stunning. The North Shore Music Theatre’s production is bare bones, partly out of necessity (it being performed in the round), partly out of concept --- director Stafford Arima often places the soloists at 9 and 3 o’clock on the stage to symbolize the emotional distance between them as well as Egypt's vastness but Mr. Arima punches up each song so that even the reprises become “A” numbers; after awhile, one yearns for a few chords of tenderness or a lyrical moment. That bare space inspires choreographer Patricia Wilcox to contribute a stunning Act One finale in praise of Nubia, growing little by little until it is a surging, weaving circle of joyful defiance, the best organic number I’ve seen since the “Canon Song” in New Rep’s THREEPENNY OPERA, last January. Ms. Wilcox also has one for the books: Act Two’s Radames-Zoser confrontation has them stepping on or over a revolving plank that, I gather, is meant to imply tension but really suggests two men trapped in a blender set on “low”.

Montego Glover is North Shore’s Aida and continues to be a glorious singer-actress but after listening to the original cast recording I must say that her predecessor, Heather Headley, produces rods of light, flexible steel while Ms. Glover manufactures an entire warehouse of cast iron. If you saw Ms. Glover’s protean turn in the Huntington’s COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY, you saw a stunning talent and her “Colored Woman” solo in North Shore’s MEMPHIS was, for me, last year’s musical high point, its effectiveness doubly underlined because it was the only “A” number Ms. Glover had to sell in that show and she did, suddenly and unforgettably. As directed here, Ms. Glover belts and belts and belts; you applaud her decathlon efforts but there’s no character, just wave upon wave of sound. Brad Anderson supplies the required butchness for Radames and, as costumed by Matt Schreiber, John Schiappa’s Zoser is a singing/dancing Ming the Merciless; I was amused to see James Bodge who had to cough throughout one of my own plays do more of the same as the ailing Pharaoh. Janine LaManna catches the evening’s lightning in the bottle with her Amnersis; she, too, can sell a song but she is warm sandstone, not steel; she flounces about amusingly, if anachronistically, and when she is in full regal headdress, her mask changes to a serene, watchful dignity worthy of an Athena. Ms. LaManna may not become a goddess, herself, but she’s certainly eligible for diva-dom.

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

"Aida" (26 October - 21 November)
THE NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY, MA
1 (978) 232-7200

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