BWW Reviews: Circle Players Opens its 2012-13 Season with Stylish AIDA

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BWW Reviews: Circle Players Opens its 2012-13 Season with Stylish AIDA

Despite some opening night technical glitches and onstage mistakes that could easily have derailed the production, Circle Players opens its 2012-13 season in ambitious style with its production of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida-the pop music-heavy musical theater offering inspired by Giuseppe Verdi's classic Italian opera Aida. Featuring a triumvirate of capable, confident and consummately talented actors-LaToya Gardner, Kevin Mead and Lisa Graham-in the show's leading roles, it is a beautifully sung, interestingly staged and tremendously affecting musical that succeeds even despite the limitations of director Ralph Gabriel's sometimes questionable choices.

The story of the enslaved Nubian princess Aida (the authoritative Gardner) and her budding romantic relationship with her captor, Egyptian Army captain Radames (Mead, whose voice belies his relative youth) is brought to life by John and Rice via a score that is filled with some beautiful pop music ballads ("Elaborate Lives" and "Written in the Stars"), a gospel anthem ("The Gods Love Nubia," which showcases Gardner's powerful voice to perfection), some Motown-inspired melodies ("My Strongest Suit," which shows off Graham's insouciance in all its charms) and evocative African-tinged music ("Dance of the Robe" and "Easy As Life") that helps give the musical a sense of historical context, however inaccurate it might be.

Clearly, the musical is less serious in tone than the opera-certainly, the themes of the tale of Aida remain heart-wrenchingly compelling, but they are leavened by liberal doses of humor and enough contemporary anachronisms to keep both the ensemble and their audience on alert-and the book, by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, is charmingly crafted in such a way to relate the story of slavery, court intrigue and romantic indiscretions more accessible for modern audiences. Just as Verdi was writing in the idiom of his own time and place in popular culture, so too do the creative minds behind this updated version of Aida.

To fully enjoy Aida, one must leave off the opulence and grandeur of the operatic stage and instead cloak oneself in an unassailable love of musical theater-with the point from there to here not all that circuitous or off-putting-to become immersed in a timeless tale of forbidden love that endures in spite of all the events that conspire to render it meangingless and inconsequential.

This modern retelling of Aida begins in the Egyptian room of a modern museum of antiquities, wherein a handsome young man and striking young woman first meet, propelling the story back in time to reveal the origins of the story of Aida, Radames and Amneris who provide the three points of a romantic triangle that continues to inspire new creations. The opening scene, as staged by Gabriel, seems rather confusing: There are too many people on the stage for the scene and the initial meeting between Gardner and Mead (who will morph into Aida and Radames) is lost in the process and Graham's Amneris' other-worldly presence only seems confounding. Gardner and Mead should be featured more prominently in this scene; in fact, their first gaze upon each other should be the impetus for the statue of Amneris to come to life. As staged, Graham's exquisite Amneris begins singing "Every Story is a Love Story" almost immediately at curtain, losing the impact of this pivotal moment in the show's progression.

The play's final scene, which returns us to the museum, is handled far more artfully, but then again the stage is filled with too many bodies for the significance of the opening and closing scenes to be felt as it should be.

As the play's time and setting shifts to ancient Egypt, when Radames returns with his bounty of Nubian slaves from the battlefield, we are introduced to an all-female battalion of Egyptian soldiers which presents an even greater sense of detachment from reality than even the over-crowded stage in the show's opening number. Clearly, you must suspend all disbelief if the show is to succeed and you are able to come to that point, thanks to the stellar performances of Gardner, Mead and Graham-who are given able assistance by Tyler Clarke Kennedy Samuel as Mereb, Radames' conniving and industrious servant, and Tony Bernui as Zoser, Radames' duplicitous father.

Sound issues, which plagued opening night in the early going (Gardner's microphone was not working during her performance of "The Past is Another Land," rendering it entirely ineffective), were overcome as the plot unfolded. In fact, Brandon Delaplane was able to remedy sound problems quickly and by show's end, the sound provided some of the necessary dramatic elements that ultimately made the production the success that it is.

Thankfully, Gabriel's direction succeeds in keeping the show apace, moving along the story at a good clip (although scene changes need further practice to achieve the requisite swiftness), and he allows Gardner, Mead and Graham to form a believable trio of legendary characters.

Gardner's imperious Aida, fiery and spirited, is beautifully portrayed, her soaring voice giving full volume to her character's inner turmoil and conflicting loyalties. Gardner's Aida behaves in much the way you would expect a princess to do and as she transforms from Radames' captive to become his lover, she takes us on a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness that is palpably emotional. She walks a fine line in doing so, but she never for a moment allows Aida to become a petulant caricature of privilege.

Gardner's duets with Mead are of the show-stopping variety: "Elaborate Lives" and "Enchantment Passing Through" are both skillfully sung by the two with a sense of poignancy and longing that is deeply felt and enormously affecting. Their performance of "Written in the Stars," is equally stirring and is certain to fill your heart with its glorious refrain.

Mead, a rising junior at Belmont University and one of the up-and-coming young stars in the school's musical theater program, proves himself the equal of his role. Bringing Radames to life with a youthful zeal, he imbues his character with a sense of gallantry and honor that exemplifies Radames' station in life. His interactions with both Gardner and Graham (as his intended, the princess Amneris) seem genuinely drawn, making their scenes all the more compelling.

Expressive and startlingly clear, Mead's voice-which was on display in all its color in Boiler Room Theatre's production of next to normal earlier this year-proves yet again that his onstage impact is no fluke. In fact, it only further cements his place in Nashville's burgeoning musical community with its power and his ability to interpret various melodies.

As Amneris, the gorgeous Graham is almost charmingly willful-an unusual blending, to be sure-and her tremendous stage presence allows her to connect with her audience is a way that is somewhat surprising considering Amneris' haughty demeanor. While her performance is noteworthy thanks to her focused performance, it is perhaps made all the more impressive by her wonderfully expressive eyes. Graham is able to telegraph every emotion and every thought that passes through the mind of Amneris with even the slightest shift in her gaze. Hers is a stunning performance and her final scene with Gardner and Mead is likely to surprise you with its emotional power.

As Mereb, Samuel is cunning and manipulative, displaying her own considerable vocal chops while so doing, and she very nearly steals the show out from under the estimable leading players. Bernui, whose voice is perfectly attuned to the sound created by John and Rice's score, plays Zoser with melodramatic glee, doing everything short of twirling a mustache to convey his character's villainy.

Among the ensemble, Amber-Rose Cox and Ashlyn Hall stand out as featured dancers and Terry McLemore succeeds in an uncredited turn as the ineffectual Pharoah, the king of Egypt who is Amneris' father.

Gabriel is credited with set design and construction, as well as the lighting design, and is to be commended for his overall artistic vision for the piece. Mallory Gleason's serviceable choreography is performed to varying degrees of success by a cast filled with non-dancers, for the most part. And costume design by Sara Harvey and Tiffany Wilson seems to follow no historical timeline (who knew ancient Egypt was filled with dancing ninjas-or that Radames would shop for his own clothes at Pirates R Us?) and is distracting at best.

Pictured: Lisa Graham, Kevin Mead and LaToya Gardner in Circle Players' AIDA.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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