Sunday, July 17, 2005

Aida (Beck Center)

Elton John and Tim Rice's 'AIDA' worth seeing at Beck

Disney productions is best known for escapist entertainment. Elton John is known as a pop singer and writer of emotional and schmaltzy songs. Tim Rice is noted for his straightforward word-games here. The trio came together for the blockbuster ‘THE LION KING’ which resulted in not only an award winning film and then a stage musical, but the best-selling recording of 1994. Sir Elton received his first Oscar for that score.

The trio came together again in 2000 for the musical, ‘ELTON JOHN AND TIM RICE’S AIDA: THE TIMELESS LOVE STORY,’ better known as ‘AIDA.’ ‘AIDA’--sound familiar? Yes, there is a Verdi opera by the same name. And the Broadway version, now on stage at Beck Center, is the same story, with a slightly cotton-candied ending, but entirely new music...pop music!

The story of ‘AIDA’ is a love triangle of loyalty and betrayal. Radames, an Egyptian captain, captures a group of Nubian women while on a scouting expedition into that country. Among the women is Aida, the daughter of the King of Nubia. Radames finds himself enamored with her and in order to spare her from a life of hard labor, he gives his new slave to his future bride, the Egyptian princess Amneris. Eventually, Aida finds herself torn between her duty to her countrymen, her impossible love for Radames, and her growing friendship with Amneris.

As Sir Elton says of the tale, "It's a beautiful, complex love story, where bigotry and hatred are swept out the window, and love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding triumph. In this day and age, I'm a great believer in the human spirit triumphing over evil in any way."

The Broadway show opened on March 23, 2000 and closed on September 5, 2004, running for 1852 performance.

Those who think of opera as a scary proposition need not worry about this pop version of the classic tale. The show is neither deep nor profound. Its a light, soap-opera. The show’s strength and appeal rests on the Elton John-Tim Rice score. There is country music, a little Rock and Roll, some Caribbean beat sounds, and lush and lovely ballads.

Beck’s production, under the capable direction of Scott Spence, starts slowly, but builds effectively. Working with a huge cast, he has paced the show well. The voices are fine, the visual elements are excellent and the choreography creative.

Colleen Longshaw, the cast’s only equity performer, acts and sings the role of Aida proficiently. She doesn’t have the charisma for holding an audience mesmerized, but in this cast of mostly high school and college students, she stands out.

Ian Atwood, who was so outstanding last year in Beck’s production of ‘MISS SAIGON’ again displays a strong and well-keyed voice as Radames. He doesn’t have the desirable “bigger than life” image, but he carries off the role more than adequately.

Carlos Cruz, as the Nubian slave Mereb, sings well and displays excellent stage presence and acting skills. Laurel Held-Posey, as Amneris, needed a little sharper initial attack, but grew nicely as the production progressed. She has a fine singing voice.

The choral sounds were excellent and the orchestra, under Larry Goodpaster’s direction, not only played well, but wisely backed up rather than drowning out the performers.

The production’s musical highlights included: “How I Know You,” “Elaborate Lives,” and “A Step Too Far.” The “Dance of the Robe” was a production high point.

The multi-Times Tribute’s Theatre Award winning choreographer, Martin Cespedes, was his usual creative self. Working with few real dancers, he was able to invent routines that allowed for a lot of walking and movement in time to music. He incorporated into the choreography traditional Egyptian motions and poses that appear on the country’s ancient pottery.

Don McBride’s set design was extremely functional and creative. His use of triangle and pyramid shapes carried out the proper visual images. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the costuming. For some unexplainable reason the costumes had no central theme. Modern dress mixed with Asian, Egyptian and African styles and fabrics. A fashion show which was intended to show off Aida’s sewing skills was a mock modern day runway show with hats and styles that often had no bearing on the script’s themes. The inconsistency was highlighted by the clothing used for the climactic dual death scene when Aida is sent to her demise in a contemporary black sheath while Radames is wearing a Nehru styled suit. Why?

The light design and execution was also problematic. Lead singers were often in the shadows due to uneven flooding and the trouble of the spotlight operators following and setting the images.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though not a perfect production, Beck’s AIDA is yet another of the Center’s continued level of raising the bar for local theatre musical productions. It is worth seeing.