Somehow, I suspect Giuseppe Verdi is not rolling over in his grave at Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida. Verdi was interested in financial success, and considering popular culture, this version of the Aida story is far better than what might have appeared.
Faint praise? Only technically. It’s great fun at the Muny for its final presentation of the 2016 season. Surely any story involving ancient Egypt has the potential for good visuals, and the opening scene, taking place in the dessert, pyramids in the background, gives us to understand that this is all fantasy, simply by creating a scene that evokes something from Tatooine in Star Wars.
Egypt is at war with Nubia, and a ship docks with Nubian captives. A woman among them challenges the captain, Radames (Zak Resnick), but she’s brought up short by his men. He sends the rest off to a prison camp, but keeps the woman, whose name is Aida (Michelle Williams), as a slave-gift to his bethrothed, the Princess Amneris (Taylor Louderman). Will this be a clash of the titans? Well, no, because Aida is smart as well as spirited, and she understands Amneris better than one would think – because, hey, Aida’s a princess, too, the daughter of the Nubian king. And Radames seems quite taken with Aida.
Like The Lion King, also from John and Rice, the show has comedic moments as well as dramatic ones. When we first meet Amneris, we could be looking at a scene from Legally Blonde, so superficial is she. But her father, the pharoah (Lara Teeter) is ill, and she begins to realize just how close to real responsibility she is. Radames’ father Zoser (Patrick Cassidy), is a counselor to the pharoah, helping things along in several ways. The subtitle of the show might well be “A Tale of Three Fathers”, because Aida’s father Amonasro (Ken Page) is captured and imprisoned. Aida’s efforts to free him complicate the love story between her and Radames.
Williams is an absolute winner as Aida, leaning into the role and taking full possession of it. And as Louderman’s character matures over the course of the play, she, too, lifts her performance, almost matching Williams’ star power. Resnick is well-matched with both women, distancing himself from one princess and drawn to another, although it’s late in the show, of course, when he discovers the titular majesty of Aida.
Of the fathers, Aida’s has the fewest lines, but Ken Page stage presence pretty much owns things when he’s on. This must have been the year’s easiest casting. Cassidy sounds great, and it’s always fun to see the versatile Teeter, but it’s Page that one can’t stop watching.
The score is considerable fun, with some songs quite distinctly Eltonian in feel, others with the feel of African traditional music. Robin L. McGee’s costumes glitter without looking, well, Disneyesque, and if the styles aren’t chronologically logical, what the heck.
The director is Matt Lenz, who has put together a satisfying evening of a show we’ve not seen very often in St. Louis. And he, like the other directors this year, has effectively used the Muny youth ensemble to great effect, something we’re happy to note.
See you next year!
Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida
through August 14