Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi and a children's story book by world famous opera soprano Leontyne Price, who played Verdi's heroine numerous times on stage, Aida focuses on the star-crossed lovers Egyptian captain Radames and Nubian princess Aida. Bookended by modern day scenes set in a museum, the plot begins in ancient Egypt when Aida and many of her Nubian people are captured and forced into slavery by Radames and his ship's crew. Though engaged to the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris, Radames is fascinated by the courageous Aida, though he has no idea she is royalty, and she is also enamored by him and his changing views. The two quickly find themselves falling in love, even though their countries are at war, and are forced to choose between their people and each other.
While the musical is quite good, there are a few shortcomings in the score and book. Elton John's music is varied but it is also pop-rock ballad heavy and features two songs for Radames' father Zoser that are incredibly weak in their music style and the hip hop orchestrations that are vastly at odds with the rest of the score. Fortunately, those are the only two low points in the otherwise melodic and memorable score with Rice's lyrics featuring nuance and meaning. The book is fairly swift and focused and fortunately doesn't sugar coat the hardships Aida and Radames are up against. It also paints both Radames and Amneris as realistic individuals who change over the course of the show. However, the score sometimes interjects yet another ballad where dialogue could suffice. Fortunately, those ballads are all quite good. Also, the modern-day museum scenes that begin and end the show give the story an uplifting message that proves that love truly is eternal.
While Hale can't do much to fix the few small drawbacks in the score and book, their three leads are superb, with Ashley Jackson making a sensational debut in her first performance at Hale. Jackson instills Aida with passion, honesty and courage. We instantly understand that this is a woman who speaks her mind even when facing her enemies. The power and passion she brings to the role is equally matched by the strong and soaring vocals she achieves in her many songs. Jackson is simply exquisite as this fierce and forceful yet entirely passionate woman.
As Radames, Ben Mason's ability to portray the character's infatuation and intrigue of Aida through his keen facial expressions and subtle gestures is exceptional. His muscular physique and strong stage presence also provide a realistic sense of the heroism and leadership qualities in the role. His powerful voice delivers both on Radames' heavier rock-themed numbers as well as his introspective ballads. Victoria Fairclough's singing voice, with earthy, gutsy tones and a strong clarity, is equally adept in ensuring that Amneris' songs soar. She makes some wise acting choices to guarantee that, while Amneris does change from being a fashion-focused, ditzy blonde to a woman who clearly sees what is going on around her, she never lets her growing sense of compassion completely consume her. As Mereb, Radames' servant who knows Aida from Nubia, Vinny Chavez provides some moments of humor and empathy, while Peter Cunniff does well as Zoser, the antagonist of the piece, even if his songs aren't the greatest and the style of speech uses sounds a bit like a Disney cartoon villain.
Director M. Seth Reines, choreographer Cambrian James, and music director JR McAlexander form a dynamic trio who deliver nonstop and striking vocals and visuals throughout. Reines has clearly worked with his actors to make sure the characters come off as realistic individuals and not just caricatures, while James' dances, which incorporate some beautiful tribal elements for the Nubian characters, and McAlexander's music direction achieve impressive results. Brian Daily's set design incorporates hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian touches into his subtle and simple yet prominent set elements, while Sherrie Diaz's costumes are perfect in both their ancient elements and modern designs. Jeff A. Davis's lighting is lush and lively, evoking both hot, sunny Egyptian days and cool and romantic evenings.
The combination of a gifted cast who deliver stunning vocals, crisp staging, and Hale's always impressive creative elements manage to offset most of the small issues I have with the score and book, which makes Hale's Aida a powerful and emotionally rich musical journey.
The Hale Centre Theatre production of Aida runs through July 1st, 2017, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at https://www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181
Music by Elton John