Top-notch acting brings musical `Aida' to life

THEATER

Elton John, Tim Rice add score with a pop sound

Theater Column

July 13, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's no danger that anyone is going to mistake Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida for Verdi's opera. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

This Disney-backed show takes a tragic Italian opera and turns it into a pop Broadway musical - and a slick one at that. There's a driving Europop beat in much of John's music, and touches of updated humor in the book by Linda Woolverton, David Henry Hwang and Robert Falls (who does double duty as director).

After an abortive 1998 Broadway tryout in Atlanta, Disney fired the show's original director and designer and brought in Falls, Hwang and designer Bob Crowley. Falls came up with the notion of framing the ancient Egyptian story within a modern context; the opening and closing scenes are set in the Egyptian gallery of a museum where the reincarnated Aida and Radames "meet cute."

Not only does this give the audience a way into a story set long ago and far away, but it grants some plausibility to the 20th-century sound of the catchy but largely undistinguished pop score (granted, it won a Tony Award, but in a season with minimal competition).

What does distinguish this Aida is style, a savvy sensibility and, in the touring production at Washington's Kennedy Center, a trio of top-notch lead performances.

After the heavily synthesized orchestrations, what strikes you most is the look that Crowley has created for the production. The Tony-winning sets rely largely on billowing expanses of silk (at one point one of these transforms into the tent of the Egyptian captain, Radames) and striking silhouettes, beautifully lighted by designer Natasha Katz, who also won a Tony.

The costumes (again by Crowley) are a cross between Versace-esque haute couture and freely interpreted Egyptian dress. The funniest moment comes in "My Strongest Suit," Princess Amneris' paean to fashion, which erupts into a full-fledged runway extravaganza, complete with outlandish headdresses ranging from a seated cat to a cube that totally engulfs the wearer's head.

But the musical has a serious side as well. Though the libretto is based on a children's book by Leontyne Price, it expands the opera's plot and themes beyond the basic romantic triangle, set against a backdrop of war. Radames is still engaged to Amneris, the Pharaoh's daughter, and he still falls in love with the captured slave, Aida, daughter of the Nubian king.

Now, however, all three have their political consciousnesses raised by ensuing events. Aida realizes that rescuing her enslaved people is more important than her forbidden love for Radames. And from Aida's example, Amneris gains the backbone and nobility she will need to lead Egypt after her father's impending death.

All of this is admirably conveyed by the three principals, particularly Paulette Ivory, who portrays Aida as a defiantly proud, independent-minded young woman. Ivory is also a stirring vocalist, whether joyously belting out the spiritual-tinged, "The Gods Love Nubia," or singing the romantic duet, "Elaborate Lives," with a tear in her voice as she and Radames are entombed.

Jeremy Kushnier's Radames is a teen heartthrob type with a dirty blond mane and a voice well suited to the pop flavors of John's music. If he seems like a frat boy, well, Kelli Fournier's Amneris is the ideal vain, preening sorority queen. Her character is also, however, the one who undergoes the greatest transformation.

One of the only disappointing performances - and it's a slight disappointment - is that of Robert Neary, who's fussy rather than formidable in the new role of Radames' evil, scheming father, Zoser.

Although Wayne Cilento's choreography smacks of MTV, he adds a sense of menace to the movements of Zoser's minions and brings a welcome African influence to the Nubian numbers.

In the end, the best way to enjoy this show is to forget all about Verdi and grand opera. After all, the goal here isn't high art, it's pop culture for a mass market - and the musical achieves that goal quite handily.

Aida

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 18

Tickets: $20-$79

Call: 800-444-1324

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