Well, well, well. Disney has finally done it. After turning one animated feature into its live action counterpart with Beauty and the Beast, and turning another into a directorial/designer tour de force with The Lion King, they finally have created an adult book-driven musical with enough skin and passion to be given a PG-13 rating if it were on film. Aida (or to be more precise and quote the posters, Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida) is a no holds barred rousing spectacle guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser with something for everyone, including, thankfully, a decent book, tuneful songs and performers who raise the roof.
Inspired by Michael Eisner's love for Verdi's classic opera, Aida, and influenced more by Verdi's source, French Egyptologist Auguste Mariete-Bey's tale of a legend set in ancient Egypt, Aida centers on a classic love triangle (or pyramid, as the case may be). Amneris, the Pharaoh's daughter, is betrothed to Radames, an Egyptian soldier. During his last foray in Nubia, Radames captures a group of women whom he conscripts into slavery, one of whom being Aida, daughter to the king of Nubia. Radames gives Aida to Amneris but ends up falling for her independence and fiery spirit. Against her better judgement, she falls in love right back and tragedy ensues. Hardly the standard fare for Disney (although the show does continue the tradition of children only having fathers) especially when one factors in issues of slavery, imperialism, infidelity, regicide, and various other sexual and political themes.
The book by Linda Woolverton (with help by two play doctors, director Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang) is largely tight and effective, balancing the heavy aspects of the show with high camp and never falling too far in either direction. However there are a few holes in the plot and in the character development of Aida that fail to make the show gel into a completely satisfying whole. For instance, Radames' father, Zoser (chillingly and effectively played by Neal Benari), is enmeshed in a plot to poison the Pharaoh who, oddly enough, seems to be the only royal monarch without a food taster. However, he gets no comeuppance at the end and simply disappears when they are dishing out punishments. And why is it that nobody except the Nubian slaves figure out that Aida is a princess? How many handmaidens do you know who are as proficient with a sword as Xena and have the attitude of a full-blown Diva?
The biggest flaw in the show is one that came to me in retrospect; namely that in some ways the show is really about Amneris and her evolution from Valley-of-the-Gods girl to wise ruler thanks to the influence of her slave, Aida. Amneris is, in fact, the one character that truly undergoes a transformation throughout the show. Radames is a noble gentleman from the start, as evidenced by his treatment of the female slaves and Aida, whom he fails to take advantage of when he has the chance. Aida constantly talks about what an immature, selfish girl she is, but there is no evidence to support that in either her actions nor in her attitude. She is self-sacrificing from the get go, worried more about the fate of her companions than her own, and never displays a hint of the spoiled princess that she keeps referring herself as.
Still, there is no denying that Aida is a powerful piece of theater, visually as well as emotionally, and the fact that one can actually discuss character development in a Disney show bodes well for their future endeavors. The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley range from a riot of colors (especially in "My Strongest Suit," inspired by Elton John's closet), to the harsh, streamlined black/red outfits of Zoser's spies (think Ninjas meet Czarist Russia), to the white and gold of the Pharaoh's court (more Luxor than Cairo). The lighting by Natasha Katz is breathtaking and oftentimes subtle in its contrasts (the rosy hued desert sunrises/sunsets followed by the stark blackness of a starry night). The direction by Robert Falls is strong and creates vibrant stage pictures and moments without ever utilizing the cliches strongly associated with Egypt. Wayne Cilento's choreography is uneven, often resembling a Janet Jackson video and not doing much to propel or add to the story, especially in the visually stimulating (but ultimately head scratching) "Another Pyramid." The songs by Elton John (lyrics by Tim Rice) range from the great bluesy, piano driven numbers for which he is famous (with good reason) like "Written in the Stars" and "Elaborate Lives" to ones that, well, sound like he should have left them in his concerts ("Like Father Like Son" being the chief offender).
And the actors? In a word, outstanding. In fact, I seriously think, after hearing the Original Cast Album, that they are as good if not better than the original Broadway Cast. As Aida, Simone (daughter of jazz legend Nina Simone) was absolutely flawless. She displays the attitude of a princess/diva coupled with a warmth and passion that captures the hearts of captains and audience members alike. Her voice is incredibly expressive and is perfectly suited to the material, ranging from low whispers to soul shattering gospel belts, often during the same song (such as in the goosebump inducing "Dance of the Robe" or the rousing "The Gods Love Nubia"). Her breathtaking rendition of "Easy As Life" makes me hope she includes it on her next CD, due in January of next year, and her website is aptly named Simonesuperstar.com.
As the spoiled princess turned regal ruler, Amneris, Kelli Fournier shined and sounded fantastic in all of her numbers (personally, I think she has a stronger voice than the original, Sherie Rene Scott). She made every moment work, be it the mindless fun of "My Strongest Suit" or the heart wrenching "I Know the Truth," and her evolution was truthful, organic, and most importantly, believable.
The usual Radames, Patrick Cassidy, was out due to illness, but his standby, Jason Workman, did not disappoint and gave a stellar performance. His chemistry with both women was electric and shifted depending on the person and the situation. I much preferred his lyric tenor that caressed each note to the rock roughened tones produced by Adam Pascal (and I suspect Jason's voice will last longer). This was a bravura performance even disallowing the fact that it was the first day Jason got to perform the part.
Overall, the show is a rousing crowd pleaser that manages to be slick and entertaining without sacrificing on book or character and is well worth seeing, especially given the strength of its actors. Aida runs at The Paramount Theatre in Seattle through May 26th before travelling on to Portland.