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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Grand opera is as much about spectacle as gorgeous arias. Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, for example, has been staged with a live elephant on stage. You won't find an elephant at the Palace where the popera version of the doomed love story of the Nubian princess Aida and the Egyptian captain Radames. But Bob Crowley, with a strong assist from lighting designer Natasha Katz, has provided enough eye-popping scenic effects and costumes to make Aida look great. A bath scene in the women's quarters complete with handmaidens whirling around a vertical pool (it's done with a scrim and suspension wires) more than compensates for the absence of elephants.
The much publicized "doctoring" during the show's bumpy out of town tryout period brought a new director, new choreographer and a revised book, dropped and added songs. Fortunately, the original Aida, Heather Headley, remained. At just twenty-five she's an experienced princess, having appeared as the grown Nada in Disney's other lavishly stage musical, The Lion King (linked below). Headley's regal yet passionate presence lends class and genuine star power and to this now smartly packaged but hardly High Art musical. Her rich mezzo-soprano voice and the emotional genuineness of her delivery cloak Elton John's pleasantly melodic, pedestrian pop music and Tim Rice's generally underwhelming lyrics in an aura of grandeur. It is no overstatement to describe young Ms. Headley as magnificent, with much of the magnetism of the musical theater's already established shining light, Audra McDonald.
Adam Pascal as Ramades, the hunky object of both princesses' affection, is handsomely decked out in princely outfits that run the color spectrum from beige to red, white and black (a long way from the East Village in his alma mater, Rent (linked below), with plenty of occasions to bare his torso. He sings well, but this is very much a show that belongs to Aida and the other cast holdover from the original, Sherie René Scott, who plays Ramades' future bride Amneris. While much of the campy modernity which got in the way of the tragic love story has been toned down by director Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, Ms. Scott gets the best of what remains, at least in the first act when she's a princess with a pea for a brain rather than an irritant under her mattress. Her "My Strongest Suit" with lines like "I would rather wear a barrel than conservative apparel" is so deftly and daffily comic that you overlook the out-of-sync feeling -- which is not the case with some of the other breezy asides to the romantic tragedy. Scott also manages to change not just her hair styles (which are impressive) but her personality as the wiser, gentler Amneris (if you can square gentle wisdom with burying the lovers alive but together). She also does a very creditable, aria-like rendition of "I Know the Truth."
While Ms. Scott has a chance to grow and change, John Hickock as Ramades' villainous dad does not. His role is unremittingly ill-conceived, and the "Like Father Like Son" number a disaster for Hickock and all participants -- including choreographer Wayne Cilento and even Crowley's ersatz bikers' look costumes.
The triple authored plot is still the ancient story of the Nubian princess captured by an Egyptian captain who comes to recognize in her all the noble qualities he wishes he had. Their love is doomed by Aida's growing bond with the captain's intended bride, the Pharao's daughter, and her duty to her father, the Nubian king, and her people. To give it a contemporary framework, Robert Falls and Henry David Hwang have sandwiched the plot into an opening and closing scene in the Egyptian exhibit room of a modern museum. This twist was probably contributed by Mr. Hwang who used a similar framing device in his play Golden Child (linked below). As with everything in this show, what works best about this is the staging. The device itself Disnifies the plot by overlaying the tragedy with the sugary-sweet implied happy ending in which the spirit of Aida's and Ramades' love will live on in their modern counterparts.
Before I conclude, I should mention that the audiences in the aptly named theater, The Palace, obviously love everything about Aida -- the good, the so-so and the bad! Every song is met not just with wild applause but enthusiastic yelling. All that's missing seems to be end-of-song standing ovations. Aida may not play eighteen years, like Cats, but don't be surprised if it hangs in there for at least half a dozen. Finally, a consumer caveat note: This isn't quite the family affair that the Lion King is. While pre-schoolers don't seem to get fidgety in that show, the kids you bring to Aida should be at least twelve or thirteen.