Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Willows Theatre is presenting West Coast Premiere of Aida without the Disney Glitz
The Willows Theatre Company has scored a coup in being "the first company west of Massachusetts to present a regional production of Elton John/Tim Rice's Aida." Artistic Director, and director of this Aida, Andrew Holtz has reported that over 100 regional, community and college theatre companies will be presenting the musical during the coming years.
Holtz is helming a good, professional production with very ingenious sets by Tom Benson and excellent lighting effects by Jon Retsky. The sets are reminscent of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, with sliding panels like sides of Egyptian pyramids colored in stripes of burnt gold and sienna red. The company has risen to the challenge of presenting an intimate love story without the Disney magic.
I am not a big fan of Sir Elton John's music or the stilted lyrics of Tim Rice. When I first saw the extravaganza at the Palace Theatre in New York with Adam Pascal, Heather Headley and Sherie René Scott, I was more impressed with the scenery than the story or the score. I was bowled over by Heather Headley as Aida and Sherie Rene Scott as Amneris. I saw the touring company when it played the Orpheum and felt that Patrick Cassidy was a far better Radames then Pascal.
Aida is not a Broadway musical for the ages, even though it played almost 2000 performances at the New York theatre. I credit that long run with good marketing on the part of the Disney corporation and the public's desire to see an extravagant musical with big sets and a big cast. The Willows has cut this down; rather than pop stars for the teenagers to swoon over, we have two very good Bay Area singers taking over the leads in this production.
Aida is loosely based on the Verdi opera about the fabled story of a love triangle in ancient Egypt. It opens in a modern art museum (staged very nicely by Andrew Holtz) where Jeff Leibow (Radames) and Dawn Troupe-Masi (Aida) cruise each other before a statue of Amneris, played by Megan Ross. We are then swept immediately back to ancient Egypt with a group of dancers doing a dance by Colette Eloi that is mostly jumping around, looking like they are ready to battle the audience. The minor plot of political intrigue seems lost in the production now.
Sir Elton John's music is at best pleasant but not memorable. He stays away from his piano rock hits and uses some gospel techniques, especially in "The Gods Love Nubia." It is sort of like the Hall Johnson Choir type song that one used to see in the Warner films of the '30s and '40s. The love songs between Jeff Leibow and Dawn Troupe-Masi are crafty melodies. Lyrics by Tim Rice are not motivated and seem very wooden.
Dawn Troupe-Masi is outstanding as Aida; vocally, she is on the par with Simone who played the role in the national touring company. Troupe-Masi turns several of the songs into showstoppers and she has great presence on the small Willows stage. Jeff Leibow is a solid Radames and he has good vocal chops. He seems a might too young to be leading an Egyptian army but he has the pop star quality about him that seems to be what the original producers wanted.
Megan Ross as Amneris comes across as a spoiled Valley girl at the beginning of the musical. She plays the role as if she were in one of the silly WB sitcoms. However, she does turn serious in her rendition of "I Know The Truth" at the end with an excellent rendition of the song.
Romar de Claro is very good as Mereb, playing it as a snappy comic. Hector S. Quintana tends to overact as Radames' father Zoser, more like a mad scientist in a horror movie of the '30s. The ensemble does nice choral work on "The Gods Love Nubia."
Costumes by Loran Watkins are a mixture of Mideastern ware with only a few looking like authentic Egyptian dress. One of the outfits that Jeff wears looks like it came from The King and I. Lighting director Jon Retsky has devised various stage search lights that flash designs around the perimeter of the stage. The Luxor-type panels by Tom Benson move smoothly back and forth to reveal various scenes. Andrew F. Holtz uses the electronic keyboard to produce a full orchestra.
Aida runs through March 26 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd in the Willows Shopping Center, Concord. Tickets can be purchased by calling 925-798-1300 or visiting www.willowstheatre.org. Their next production will be Judgment at Nuremberg, opening on April 25th.