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New England Review: Star-Making Turn Lifts "Aida" at NSMT

"Aida"

Music by Elton John

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang

Direction by Stafford Arima

Musical direction by Andrew Graham

Choreography by Patricia Wilcox

Scenic Design by Bill Stabile

Costume Design by Randall Klein

Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman

Sound Design by John A. Stone

Cast in order of appearance:

Amneris, Janine LaManna

Radames, Brad Anderson

Aida, Montego Glover

Mereb, Derrick Baskin

Zoser, John Schiappa

Pharaoh, James Bodge

Nehebka, Q. Smith

Amonasro, J. Bernard Calloway

Performances: Now through November 21

Box Office: 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org

A powerful and compelling performance by Montego Glover as "Aida" is helping the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., end its 2004 season on a high note. As adept at handling the fierce determination of a willful Nubian princess as she is at expressing the uncertainties of a young woman in love, Glover captivates her audience as quickly as her Aida charms the Egyptian army captain Radames.

Described as "the timeless love story," Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida" is more pop concert than Broadway musical. Their uneven score is a mixture of Egyptian, African and contemporary rhythms which vacillate between campy production numbers ("Another Pyramid" and "My Strongest Suit") and thematically repetitious power ballads ("Enchantment Passing Through," "Elaborate Lives," and "Written in the Stars"). A nice modern-day prologue and epilogue which establish the ancient love story as part of a museum tour guide's historical synopsis serve as touching and timeless counterpoints to the musical spectacle that unfolds. Other than the bit of romantic symmetry that this layering draws between two universes, however, the book is rather predictable and thin.

Yet, the scintillating performance by Glover elevates this production to a higher status than the material alone deserves. With tremendous sincerity and intensity, this stunning actress and singer transforms unremarkable songs like "The Past Is Another Land" and "Easy as Life" into bittersweet anthems to the tragedy that inevitably results when star-crossed lovers from an ancient time have to choose between duty and personal happiness. Glover shows us the maturity of a reluctant leader destined to sacrifice herself for her people in conflict with the romantic idealism of a Juliet who childishly dreams of escaping the realities of politics and war with her handsome Romeo at her side.

The staging by director Stafford Arima, choreography by Patricia Wilcox, and combined work of the entire design team all raise the standard of this "Aida," as well. Hilarious costumes that seem inspired by Madonna stop the show during "My Strongest Suit" as the self-absorbed Egyptian Princess Amneris and her consorts strut their eye-popping fashionable stuff like a group of Valley Girls just returned from Rodeo Drive. Platforms that rise out of the stage floor, tunnels that open in the aisles, and catwalks that rotate on a turn style also expand the physical resources of this theater-in-the-round dramatically to bring much needed animation to inherently static material.

The very best moments, however, are those that benefit from both Wilcox's African-inspired choreography and Andrew Graham's rousing musical direction – "The Dance of the Robe" and "The Gods Love Nubia." In each of these pulsating numbers, Glover and her ensemble of Nubian slaves escalate their intensity and joy to coincide with their growing passion and resolve to be free. In these stirring performances lie the real heart and soul of "Aida." The melodramatic love story that is touted as this show's main attraction takes a distant back seat to the more compelling saga of a young female warrior fated to lead her people out of captivity.

As the tormented heroine, the diminutive Glover delivers an impassioned portrayal that makes her tower far above any of the other actors on stage. Her singing is pure and forceful without being forced, and her acting is utterly riveting. Brad Anderson as Radames, her ill-fated captor turned lover, is a decent enough singer and competent actor, but his uninspired, boyish captain is no match for Glover's lioness princess. His character comes across as a shallow and spoiled wooden soldier who doesn't deserve the love of the regal Aida. While soon to be wed in an arranged marriage to the Princess Amneris, Anderson's Radames seems perfectly willing to shun his responsibilities in favor of living happily ever after with Aida, sailing eternally on a barge up the Nile.

Janine LaManna as Amneris fares much better. She displays a biting comic sensibility in the early going when Amneris cavorts around the stage as an empty-headed but likable brat who is used to being pampered by her servants but seeks companionship from them, just the same. When Aida is given to her by Radames as the spoils of war, she, too, is captivated by the Nubian girl's strength and charms. A friendship develops, and through their association Amneris gradually transforms into a thoughtful, self-respecting adult. By "Aida's" conclusion, LaManna gives us a true leader, a future queen who has learned heroism, duty, compassion, and courage. As a result, her reprise of the opening song "Every Story Is a Love Story" at the end of the play is both poignant and tender.

The other performance worth noting in this production of "Aida" is that of Derrick Baskin as Radames' Nubian servant, Mereb. His "How I Knew You" duet with Aida in the first act and solo reprise in the second are penetratingly heartfelt renditions that inspire his princess to action. Baskin gives us a nicely nuanced interpretation of a proud man enslaved by his enemies who has used his affability and wit to survive while patiently awaiting the opportunity to rise up in revolt. Like Glover, he is able to express conflicting emotions in a single glance. His singing is pleasant and powerful, as well.

As the North Shore Music Theatre Playbill suggests, the love between Aida and Radames will last forever. But the stellar performance by Montego Glover won't. It ends November 21, after which it will vanish along with the ancient Egyptian ruins that mark the end of "Aida."

Go see this rising star while you have the chance. Glover's performance may not be eternal, but it is timeless.

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Jan Nargi Jan Nargi is owner and creative director of JMN Publications, a marketing and public relations firm based in Boston, Mass. She provides consultation, communications, and writing services to clients in the health care, entertainment, financial, retail, manufacturing, non-profit, and sports industries. As a freelance writer, Jan has had hundreds of articles published in business and high-tech magazines. Theatrically, she has reviewed, written, directed, acted, produced, sung, danced, managed publicity, pounded nails, and designed lighting and sets. Jan has even acted in the occasional B-movie, playing a zombie, a psycho shrink, and a clueless news reporter. You may visit her on the web at www.jmnpublications.com.


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