The term "rock musical" generally means one of two things. It can refer to a traditional book musical which simply speaks in the language of rock, such as Rent; or, it can refer to a musical like Mamma Mia!,whose raison d'être is to perform rock music in a live setting, while elements of plot and character take a back seat to loud music and choreography. Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida is a hybrid of the two, in which book-driven songs find themselves juxtaposed with rock 'n' roll performance pieces.
If this sounds awkward, that's because it sometimes is. Zoser, the nominal villain of the piece, plots and plans, but the bulk of his machinations are wholly unnecessary to the love triangle that drives Aida's plot. Instead, Zoser's true purpose is to be a front man for his minions to dance behind. Zoser, sung with a strong rock voice by Neal Benari, has two songs in the show, and each time he is backed by an entourage that breaks out into a dance number that would feel at home in a Janet Jackson video. Wayne Cilento's choreography is fresh and inventive, and the ensemble executes it with such perfect synchronization that their long black coats flutter to a stop at precisely the same moment. There is no doubt that these numbers impress and entertain, yet a small voice in the back of one's mind wonders what all this has to do with the story of the Nubian princess and the Egyptian captain who falls in love with her.
Aida requires most of its performers to operate competently in both types of rock musical, and they achieve it with varying degrees of success. Aida understudy Merle Dandridge (who was in for Simone in the performance reviewed) easily handles both types of singing. Dandridge is equally comfortable with delicate ballads as with rock, and when she is called upon to sing roof off the place, she obliges. Dandridge also fills her singing with emotional content, and her "Easy As Life" early in the second act, is as raw and moving as any ten o'clock number out there.
Kelli Fournier plays the princess Amneris, Aida's rival for the captain's affections, and she is also spot on. Amneris is everything a modern Disney princess isn't: superficial, shy, and slow on the uptake. Fournier's giddy Amneris is introduced with "My Strongest Suit," a rollicking song about the importance of looking good, which she belts out enthusiastically. Yet Fournier also has a second act ballad, "I Know the Truth," in which she proves she is more than just a pretty face with a big voice. The man that makes the third side of this "love pyramid" is Radames, played by stand-by Jason Workman (in for Patrick Cassidy). Workman is in his element with Radames' rock numbers; he can hold his own opposite Benari's Zoser, and he even adopts a rock stance when he sings his opening song, "Fortune Favors the Brave." But he seems out of place with his ballads, singing them with a vocal competence, but emotional detachment. Even his book scenes lack commitment; his Radames seems a decent enough guy, but not the sort that would inspire the depths of passion we see in Aida.
The creative team must also walk the line between book-driven rock musical and rock-driven rock musical. Perhaps the most successful at keeping the balance is Natasha Katz, whose Tony-award winning lighting design encompasses both a golden Egyptian dawn, breathtaking in its simplicity, and rock concert-like beams of light that change colors to the beat of the music. Also successful are Bob Crowley's costumes, which run the gamut from realistic rag-like garb for the Nubian slaves to the fantastically avant-garde dresses that drive Amneris wild. Bonus points to Crowley for frequently putting Amneris in long tight dresses made of horizontal strips of cloth, which subconsciously remind us of Egyptian mummies, while still maintaining their position at the height of fashion.
What doesn't entirely keep the balance between the two types of rock musical is Elton John's music, which is responsible for the dual nature of the show in the first place. Following Aida's glorious "Easy As Life" with a loud rock number from Zoser and Radames is criminal, undermining the gravity of Aida's situation with a lot of shouting and posing. The rest of the writing team has responded with an Aida that never takes itself too seriously. Tim Rice's facility with the English language is apparent in his lyrics (sometimes it's just nice to hear a lyricist unafraid to use four-syllable words), which generally stay in the realm of the superficial and witty, without plumbing the depths of the psyche. Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang have taken the framework of the Aida story, Disneyfied it, spiffed it up with some female empowerment subplots, and dressed it up in a gorgeous package. What results is Aida-lite. It is a fun night out, but it isn't emotionally filling.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer; Disney Theatrical Productions presents Aida. Music by Elton John; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang, suggested by the opera. Scenic & Costume Design by Bob Crowley; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Steve C. Kennedy; Hair Design by David Brian Brown; Makeup Design by Naomi Donne; Fight Director Rick Sordelet; Music Arrangements by Guy Babylon & Paul Bogaev; Orchestrations by Steve Margoshes, Guy Babylon & Paul Bogaev; Dance Arrangements by Bob Gustafson, Jim Abbott & Gary Seligson; Musical Director Steven Cosmo Mallardi; Music Coordinator Michael Keller; Casting by Bernard Telsey Casting; Production Stage Manager David Lober; Production Supervisor Clifford Schwartz; Technical Supervision Theatersmith, Inc.; Associate Producer Marshall B. Purdy; Associate Director Keith Batten; Associate Choreographer Tracey Langran Corea. Produced by Peter Schneider & Thomas Schumacher; Music Produced and Music Supervision by Paul Bogaev; Choreography by Wayne Cilento; Directed by Robert Falls.
Aida plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through January 5, 2002. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772, or buy online at www.taperahmanson.com