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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Near West Theatre
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule

Also see Mark's reviews of American Dreams, Sassy Mamas, Riverdance 20 and David's review of Boy

Kyla Burks and Brian Tuohey
Photo Courtesy of Near West Theatre
Aida the musical is probably one of the most challenging shows to put on stage. Although it ran for 1,852 performances and garnered four Tony Awards during its four-year run on Broadway, the reviews were not positive (except for star Heather Headley). With music by Sir Elton John, lyrics by Sir Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, this Disney-backed theatrical should have had everything going for it.

When Near West Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Kelcie Nicole Dugger first proposed this monumental undertaking as a vehicle for their youth company, it was met with some push back. Some felt it was too mature a subject matter and too complicated a storyline for the young company (ages 9 to 16) to handle.

The problems with the show are many, beginning with the sketchy storyline that has just a nodding glance to the original Verdi opera. Except for a couple of what could be deemed almost-showstoppers, the music is a collection of Sir Elton clones, as if he could not get certain hit tunes out of his head. The set can be expansive, with multiple monolithic constructions having to be fitted together with exact precision. Lastly, the dialog is flat and uninspiring. So how does the Near West Theatre production fare? In spite of the overwhelming odds against it, not that bad.

Aida (Kyla Burks) is a Nubian princess who has been captured by the Egyptian Captain Radames (Brian Tuohey) who is betrothed to the Egyptian Princess Amneris (Megan Spisak). Radames father, Chief Minister Zoser (Alex Schwartz), has plotted for years to kill the Egyptian Pharaoh (Elliot Lockshine) by poisoning his wine and have his son take over the country. Radames is attracted to Aida because of her straightforwardness and manages to save the princess in hiding and her royal entourage from the copper mines (and certain death) by assigning them to caring for the palace grounds. He chooses Aida as a handmaiden for his fiancée who, due to her skill with fabric and sewing, is made a fast friend by the Egyptian princess. The only person in Egypt who knows Aida's secrets is Radames' Nubian slave Mereb (Giles Foster), who has a black market concern going with the royal wine.

At the royal banquet celebrating Radames' successful return from a six-month campaign, the Pharaoh announces the wedding of the young captain to his daughter before taking ill due to the arsenic-laced wine. Radames realizes that his campaigning days may be over as he mulls over exchanging his life of adventure for one of politics and being married to a vain and shallow woman. The plot comes to a climax when Radames admits his love for Aida and her for him as the capture of Aida's father Amonasro (Jackson Marshall) is announced. Plans are made for an escape (with the bribes financed by Mereb's ill-gotten gold), with Radames and Aida making plans to live on the border of the two countries.

In spite of the shortcomings of the script and music, this nearly two and a half hour long epic is actually quite entertaining. What saves the show is the singing talent of the principal players who carry the show on their backs. Fifteen-year-old Kyla Burks (Aida) has a most amazing voice throughout her extensive range as well as tremendous stage maturity. Brian Tuohey (Radames) is her equal in vocalization. When the two perform a heartfelt duet it was rewarded by cheering from the audience.

Another notable is Alex Schwartz (Zoser) who brings a surprising level of desperate dastardliness to the role, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and body language. Megan Spisak (Amneris) brings an almost "valley girl" aspect to her role as the vain and self absorbed Egyptian princess. Giles Foster (Mereb) takes the role of Radames' servant and manages to expand it on the huge stage. Lastly, although he does not have a singing part, Jackson Marshall (Amonasro) does a fine turn as Aida's father, as he rants against her choice of falling in love with his sworn enemy.

Special mention needs to be made of the scenic and props crew for their incredible hard work during the show. The set consists of eight huge, rolling monoliths along with two thirty-foot-tall matching obelisks, with more than twenty scene changes over the course of the show. They should get combat pay for their efforts.

Special mention also goes out to director Kelcie Nicole Dugger and her crew, including JT Buck (music director), Josh Landis (choreography), Cameron Michalak (set design), Adam Ditzel (lighting), Lady Jen Ryan (costumes), Miguel Osborne (Nubian costumes) and Matt Torok (sound design), who manage to turn a group of 39 youth age performers into a professional looking company capable of handling a difficult Broadway show.

The orchestra headed by JT Buck (keyboards 1), Malik Khalfani (keyboards 2), Deborah "Ingy" Ingersoll (keyboards 3, with Curtis Tate on Saturday Performances), Mark Bussinger (drums/percussions), and Jason Stebelton (bass) expands the music far beyond its original concept.

Kudos to director Kelcie Nicole Dugger for challenging her young charges with a most demanding Broadway show, and to the 39 young actors who volunteered endless hours to perfect their craft with their only reward being the enthusiastic applause from an appreciative audience. To all—well played!

Near West Theatre's Aida, through February 25, 2018, at 6702 Detroit Avenue in Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 216-961-6391.

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