Entering the theatre-in-the-round for the new production of the musical Aida at Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre is like being seated within the walls of a museum exhibit. Hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, or the words of gods, surround the house walls against a backdrop of painted stone. And there before you, centered on the small stage area where the action will soon take place, is what appears to be an Egyptian tomb, flanked by two, tall glass cases, home to statue replicas of those believed to be entombed within the bricks of the box-like, brick-built, ancient apparatus.
The statues standing there in the Egyptian Wing of present-day Chicago’s Field Museum are meant to be that of Aida, Princess of Nubia, and Radames, Captain of the Egyptian army, and it is their love story, introduced in song by the third member of the tragic love affair, Amneris, Princess of Egypt, that takes us and everyone else in the museum, back in time, when Pharaohs ruled.
The musical is always referenced as being based on Verdi’s Italian opera Aida, but it’s really based on a children’s storybook version of Verdi’s work. The rights to that book, written by celebrated American soprano Leontyne Price, were bought by Disney with the intention of turning it into an animated feature. It was Elton John, fresh from his success with The Lion King, that suggested making the animated film a musical.
By taking the story not from the opera but from a children’s version helped streamline the work and narrowed the tale of the love triangle between a soldier, a princess, and a princess slave into an engaging and relatively uncomplicated account of what occurred in ancient Egypt. The animated feature was never made, but after a critically savaged live production that opened in Atlanta, with adjustments, a new set design, a tweaking of songs and score, plus an emphasis on the spectacular, the show opened to great, Tony-award winning success on Broadway.
The continual headache of all seasonal programming for an enterprise like Hale Centre, as with Scottsdale’s Desert Stages, is finding the right material that will work in a theatre-in-the-round without losing the essence of what made the production succeed on a traditional stage. Not all shows lend themselves to the round, particularly when a show’s reputation is built on its grand-scale, full-on visual splendor. Surprisingly, Aida translates well.
For obvious reasons, absent are the eye-popping, theatrical tricks of Broadway, but what remains is a nicely directed, well-blocked production from M.Seth Raines who uses all areas of the house in order to tell the story. Again, with the occasional exception of the extreme north-west corner where some theatre-goers have to crank necks in order to see a brief moment enacted on an elevated balcony area, Raines has his actors continually turn to all four sides of the house without making the direction appear unnatural. Performers entering down the aisles to the centre, sometimes even exchanging dialog from the stadium-like steps among the theatre patrons, engage audiences in a way that makes them feel like secret observers to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the Pharaohs.
But while the show can be admired for its invention and its in-the-round adaptation, it lacks in excitement, and that has a lot more to do with Elton John’s score with lyrics from Tim Rice than Hale’s production. Despite winning a Tony, John’s music is mostly back-to-back power ballads, and not particularly memorable ones, either. Imagine hearing repeated variations of Ann Wilson and Mike Reno’s Almost Paradise, and you get the idea. There are no clever or melodious hooks that leave you humming the tunes once you exit the theatre, though the upbeat, Motown infused My Strongest Suite sung by Amneris (Victoria Fairclough) aims high and hits the mark. Presented with a keen sense of humor, just when you think the song is over and the applause begins, the Egyptian princess gives the audience a subtle admonishing finger wave as if to say, “Uh,uh,” and the song continues, incorporating a fun costume parade as if all of her servants are walking the fashion runway. With that exception, and a haunting ensemble number, The Gods Love Nubia, overall, the score is less Broadway and more a slow day on VH1 as it was presented in the 90’s.
However, while the score drags to the point where minds are occasionally in danger of wandering, director Reines effectively builds drama and tension in the love-triangle story, particularly during the attempted escape of King Amonasro (Aaron Pendleton) where theatrical smoke and fog masks the stage and creates the illusion of a boat with occupants floating slowly across water from a wood-built dockside. Plus, the framing of the story at the present-day Chicago museum concludes on a satisfying high note as the same museum attendees unknown at the beginning are now familiar at the end, suggesting that maybe Ancient Egypt was right when it came to reincarnation.
Ben Mason’s Captain Radames conveys an effective sense of personal torment and conflict when torn between his duty and his love for two women, even if his singing voice lacks that extra punch required for these power ballads to come alive, while Victoria Fairclough’s spoiled daughter of Pharaoh injects much needed humor in the proceedings, describing herself as a princess with fabulous hair.
But it’s with the show’s Aida, the princess taken into slavery, where the producers and casting directors, David and Corrin Dietlin, have hit the jackpot. With long, braided hair framing her handsome, attractive features, making her Hale Centre debut, Ashley Jackson is simply glorious. She shines, with or without a spotlight. Casting her in the ensemble would never have worked. On appearance alone she stands out among others, drawing the focus of attention without effort. But she acts with confidence, projecting her voice with extreme clarity, and clearly possessing the production’s best and most powerful singing voice. The fact that she can perform something as ordinary a ballad as Easy As Life and make it sound emotionally affecting with a big finish takes something more than just talent; it’s the it factor that talent scouts look for, and it’s there with Ashley for a scout to discover.
Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw