Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
"Every story, new or ancient,
The Queen Isis, once known as Princess Amneris, then ushers us into an ancient world of pyramids and pharaohs where such a story is about to unfold: the emotionally captivating story of Aida that has graced opera stages around the world for almost 150 years since, Giuseppe Verdi and Antonio Ghislanzoni introduced her to the world on a Cairo stage in 1871.
In 2000, a star-studded team of Elton John (music), Tim Rice (lyrics), along with Linda Wolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang (book) took the opera and transformed it into a Broadway show running four-plus years, with music that had that distinct Elton John rock-and-ballad style. Broadway by the Bayunder the masterfully conceived and beautifully inspired direction of Jason Jeffreyopens its own version, a big-stage, big-sounding Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida that looks and feels the Great White Way in every respect.
As the museum setting gives way to the great Nile and a raised sail above its red shores, the young captain Radames returns from the latest successful campaign against Egypt's most hated enemy, Nubia, ushering to shore a line of captured slaves who are all headed to sure death in the copper mines. One tall, distinctive woman, Aida, lashes out with a sword to free herself, and she immediately commands the attention and attraction of Radames, who decides to honor her bravery (and her looks) with a reprieve as a handmaiden to his long-time fiancée, Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharaoh.
And thus sets up an unlikely love triangle that will eventually lead to a tragic ending for two and a kingdom's throne for the third. But, first, the journey will twist and turn through forbidden love, unlikely friendships, palace plots, royal rescues, and an enslaved nation's renewed sense of pride and power.
This epic-size story unwinds in scenes pulsating with eye-popping, pulse-pounding choreography as conceived by choreographer Nicole Heifer. An ensemble of twelve alternates between Egyptian guards and Nubian slaves to wow the audience in numbers that range from gymnastically athletic to electrically robotic, gracefully exquisite, and tribally animalistic. As their voices also blend and soar in number after number, this excellent ensemble struts, jumps, weaves, twists and twirls as arms pound vigorously, shoulders shudder, and bodies bend in all directionsconsistently operating as one well-coordinated, carefully choreographed organism.
But the story's true magnetic power comes from the magnificent voices and acting abilities of the principals, who overwhelmingly convince us of both humanity and inhumanityaccording to the role portrayed. Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas) begins as a cocky conqueror who introduces himself to us in a blasting, boasting rock-star "Fortune Favors the Brave" (with his minions of soldiers backing him up in heart-thumping style). But once he is confronted by the defiant slave Aida and sees that, however beautiful she is, she is even stronger willed and braver than any of his soldiers, Radames gradually begins to loosen his military hero self and expose his own humanity and heart.
His transformation begins as he listens, dumbstruck, while Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté) plaintively yet assertively sings with striking beauty, "You know nothing about me and care even less... You long for our spirit but that, you will never possess" ("The Past Is Another Land"). The two begin a cat-and-mouse game of attraction/rejection, where attraction more and more wins out even as the odds of a favorable outcome are next to nil between conquered-slave and betrothed-to-a-princess captain. But their love grows, as witnessed in sung duets that doggedly dare possibilities ("Enchantment Passing Through"), erotically confess their love in wonderfully blended harmony ("Elaborate Lives"), or stare in intricately intertwined voices at the hard realities where choices of destiny confront choices of love ("Written in the Stars"). The magnetic draw between this Radames and Aida is visceral, with each bringing a voice that at times exposes edges that cut to the core with raw emotion and at other times mesmerize with smooth, soaring surety of tone.
The third point of this love triangle belongs to Amneris, the princess we first meet in the museum. Caitlin McGinty is a knock-out winner in a role where she first appears as a fashion queen with little sign of any care in the world beyond what she will wear today. With hair long and red and a step full of flair and fling, Amneris struts the runway in the latest of Egyptian fashionaccompanied by three, hip-swirling, smartly strutting models (one in drag, of course) flowing in sparkling skirts and swirling scarves of the ancient yet strikingly modern sort. With Vegas style of step and voice, Ms. McGinty's Amneris pulsates "My Strongest Suit." However, once she gets to know and visibly admire/like her new handmaiden Aida, Amneris reveals step-by-step that there is much more to her than concerns about "health and fitness, diet and deportment." As her heart begins to break over realizing her childhood-promised prince-to-be Radames loves another, her heart also begins to grow in its ability to recognize and honor what true love really means.
But first, she, Radames, and Aida must continue to confront difficult questions, troubling doubts, and impossible decisions that take on life-changing, life-threatening dimensions, with their combined efforts in songs like "Not Me" and "A Step Too Far" shattering the air with passionate, haunting harmonies.
Other characters enter to leave their memorable trails on this story. Montel Anthony Nord is the Nubian slave Mereb, who has learned the tricks of how to survive and even thrive in Egyptian society, even becoming a close companion of his master Radames. When he recognizes Aida for who she really is as the royal princess of his native land, Mr. Nord shines with celestial chords that majestically soar in "How I Know You."
Radames' father is the diabolical Zoser, played with evil eyes and evangelistic ardor by Benjamin Ball, who plots how to ensure his son acquires the throne of Pharaoh faster than Nature would normally have allowed. As he sings with stellar, religious-filled fervor "Another Pyramid," a horde of pumping, punching, muscled boys backs him up. When he discovers his son is not going to follow his sinister plan for a quick succession, his wickedness seethes in a caustically sung duet with Radames ("Like Father, Like Son").
As compelling as the voices, acting abilities, and choreography of this production are, it is the rest of the production team that puts the icing on the cake to ensure a must-see show. Mark Mendelson's scenic design is awing in every respectfrom a Nile shoreline that appears to reveal the slithering river before retracting to expose a shimmering sea, to grand palace columns and even grander insides of a pyramid's tomb. The lighting of Michael Oesch shimmers in every respect with effects like scalloped reflections from the Nile that change as the sun's journey shifts or as the story's mood turns. The fifteen musicians of music director and conductor Alicia Jeffrey's orchestra embellish Elton John's music with interpretations that support and improve the story at every turn, with Zak Stamps' sound design always ensuring the right balance between musicians and singers and the clarity of every lyric and spoken word in the cavernous Fox Theatre.
Finally, special kudos go to Merissa Mann for an array of ancient costumes that have modern flairs and pizzazz, that sparkle with imagination, and that bring the colors, customs and cultures of both Egypt and Nubia front and center on the stage before us. The looks of the characters are made even better by made-up eyes that absolutely speak volumes through the artistic design by Alexis Lazear (who also designs the wigs and hair).
While it is difficult to outdo a Verdi opera, Elton John, Tim Rice, and Broadway by the Bay come as close as possible to doing so by creating a musical evening that grabs the audience from the opening moments of Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida and does not let us blink an eye of distraction until the last sung note. Earworms aplenty linger the next day from songs that continue to soar in our heads. And in our hearts lives a story about impossible love found in the midst of hate and prejudice, about conflicting responsibilities to family and country, and about social change that can come on the basis of one person's courage.
Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida, through November 18, 2018, by Broadway by the Bay at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City CA. Tickets are available at broadwaybythebay.org.