The musical Aida has a lot of muscle behind it, with music by Elton John and the deep pockets of Disney as well as a spectacular design and a familiar and moving story. The national tour currently presented at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati is, despite a few minor missteps, a winning production and definite crowd-pleaser.
Aida is the story of the Nubian princess Aida who is captured by invading Egyptians. Radames, the leader of the Egyptian army, is betrothed to Amneris, the daughter of the Pharaoh. Aida, living as a slave to Princess Amneris, attracts the attention of Radames, who admires her courage, beauty, and resilience. The Pharaoh is dying, thanks to poisoning by Radames' father Zoser, and commands that Radames and Amneris marry before his death. However, Radames and Aida fall in love and risk their lives in hopes of finding happiness together.
The score, which boasts music by pop/rock legend Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, Chess), won the duo the 2000 Tony Award for Best Score. Mr. John's music consists of mostly uncomplicated and highly melodic pop songs, but also contains the level of theatricality necessary for a musical. Mr. Rice's lyrics are always acceptable and often provide detailed insight into the emotions of the characters or advance the plot. Highlights of the score include "How I Know You," "Elaborate Lives," and "The Gods Love Nubia".
Aida's book is credited to Linda Woolverton, along with Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang. The script does an excellent job of providing a historical perspective as well as telling the very personal stories of the three main characters. A touching love story, likable characters that the audience cares about, plenty of conflict, and several moments of very funny humor are all present and solidly rendered.
The design for the show is one of the strongest in modern musical theater history, matched only in beauty by The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera. Bob Crowley has used bright and bold colors and unique set pieces to great effect. The trees, lakes, and rivers of Egypt, as well as tents and boats, are vibrantly created and present the ancient setting through cutting edge design. The swimming pool effect for "My Strongest Suit" is especially stunning and received a number of audience gasps of appreciation on opening night. Crowley's costumes are more modern in appearance, but typically correspond to an appropriate garb of the period. The "off-the-wall" gowns for the fashion show scene are pure modern camp, but each has a connection to the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Lighting by Natasha Katz is brilliantly provided. From soft spot lights that add dramatic effect to the wonderful laser lights that form a pyramid from which the lovers triangle sings in "A Step Too Far", there is much to admire. Both Mr. Crowley and Ms. Katz won Tony Awards for their work on Aida.
Despite a generally strong score, book, and physical rendering, the show has an identity crisis at times. Aida is an ancient tale, yet is told through songs and design elements that are decidedly modern. Surprisingly, this dichotomy generally seems to work well. Most of the pop songs and the technical aspects continue to support the ancient theme in a highly stylized manner. It is, however, on the several occasions ("Another Pyramid", "Like Father, Like Son", and to a much lesser extent "My Strongest Suit") when the show abandons its theatrical context and becomes an MTV video that the piece's integrity is jeopardized. Wayne Cilento's choreography and presentation of these numbers are visual interesting and entertaining, but also aid in distancing the audience from the show's setting and theme.
Director Robert Falls does a generally good job bringing the various production aspects together. The show has a quick and captivating pace and the actors are wisely guided to maximize the effect of their performances.
A great deal of the success of Aida relies on proficient performers in the lead roles. As the title character, British born actress Paulette Ivory is magnificent. Her soulful and confident singing is matched by her calm and commanding demeanor on stage. Those fans of the show who fear that any other performer will pale in comparison to Heather Headley, who originated the role, will be impressed by Ms. Ivory.
Patrick Cassidy as Radames is convincing as a man forced to choose between two loves. However, Mr. Cassidy (who was impressive in his role as the Balladeer in the original New York production of Assassins) is not a good vocal fit for the role. Making a triumphant homecoming is Hamilton, Ohio native Kelli Fournier as Amneris. Ms. Fournier handles the vocal demands of the role with energy and skill and demonstrates sufficient depth in capturing both the character's vulnerability and her humorous flighty side. Jacen R. Wilkerson makes a strong impression as Mereb and Robert Neary is a suitable Zoser.
The national tour of Aida is able to easily overcome its few flaws to provide an impressive and entertaining theatrical event, and may bring new audience members to the theater, thanks to its connections to Disney and pop music. The production continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through February 17, 2002. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. The tour continues to Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.