ArtsCentric's AIDA: Moving Musical Art

◊◊◊◊ out of five

AIDA, already a part of the classic opera cannon, made its way to the Broadway stage a few years ago and had a healthy run.  That production was elaborately staged, and featured the talents of Tony-winner Heather Headley.  With a score by two other Tony winners, Elton John and Tim Rice, it seemed a sure fire hit.  Sure, it ran a respectable amount of time, but overall, it left this critic cold.  Would that that production had half the creativity, heart and passion as the production being presented by ArtsCentric at Morgan State University!  It might still be running in New York, and I certainly wouldn't be cold to it.  In short, this local production by this relatively new theatre group is entirely superior to its original, and deserves to be a resounding hit. 

Under the talented, creative eye of director Kevin S. McAllister (recently in Toby's Baltimore's Ragtime as Coalhouse) this pop-opera/musical soars to emotional heights.  He has painstakingly shaped scene after scene of breathtaking stage pictures, each and everyone a potential still art masterpiece.  The stage space at the Turpin-Lamb Theatre (part of the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University) is expansive, with the fly space fully in view and with almost no wall delineating the stage area from backstage.  Lesser directors would have trouble filling this space, but Mr. McAllister clearly knows what he is doing, for the empty spaces he leaves are as significant and artful as the populated ones.  Choreographer Anwar Thomas has worked well within his director's concept, creating rich, emotional dances that ebb and flow and build to exciting levels as well.  The Nubian "Dance of the Robes" is thrillingly theatrical all by itself, and the macho posturing and menacing threat of the Ministers comes blasting off the stage in the chilling dances for "Another Pyramid" and "Like Father, Like Son". 

The design team, aces all, also fully understand how to use this impressive, if atypical space.  Set designer Jeff Harrison has crafted a scenic concept of beautiful blonde wood panels that at once suggest the precision of the pyramids of Egypt and the modern art museum scenes that bookend the show.  Pieces that move gracefully, allowing for a variety of smaller subspaces and/or sweepingly large spaces, and imperial looking steps and columns add to the fluidity of the directions and help to smoothly guide us through this epic story.  Similarly, Lynn Joslin's stunning lighting seamlessly creates a variety of moods and adds texture to the flat expanses of walls and flooring.  The austerity of the background also serves to heighten our focus on the action and characters, something nearly lost on the Broadway stage. 

And in heightening that awareness, McAllister ups the theatrical ante with a dozens of beautiful and astonishing costumes, which he also designed.  Like the story, his costumes are a pallet of moods and characterizations.  Often, his use of contrast is spectacular.  The Egyptian Ministers, a motley group of power hungry henchmen to Zoser, is clothed in sharply lined black and red suits that are menacing, while the group of captured Nubian slaves, is clothed in a hodgepodge of material scraps in a variety of textures that evoke both our pity and an undeniable strength.  Some of his most beautiful costumes are for the Egyptian royalty in rich tones and gorgeous jeweled pieces.  And his Egyptian runway show during Amneris' comic number "My Strongest Suit" does not disappoint, striking the perfect balance between high fashion and hilarity.  Combined, McAllister and his design team have really brought the sweeping grandeur of the story and the romantic intimacy of the central love story together in a completely satisfying way.

All of this would be for naught without a decent cast, and here, McAllister and company have hit the proverbial jackpot!  There is not a single weak link in the entire cast.  Each is a gifted singer and incredible dancer.  Most of the acting is quite excellent as well, and none of it takes away from the overall effectiveness of the piece.  Charles E. Miller, Jr. as the villainous Zoser is quite powerful and scary when he is singing and leading his henchmen through elaborate dance sequences, but he seems like a little of the cruelty of his performance is lost when he speaks.  Mereb, slave to the Pharaoh and Princess Amneris is gleefully played by Andre Simmons, a great mixture of comic relief and remarkable strength.  His interplay with both the Princess and his Queen, Aida is very real chemistry and adds much to depth of the entire evening.

The central three characters, though, make or break AIDA, and I am pleased to say that all three actors in the roles are nothing less than remarkable.  As the self-absorbed Princess Amneris, Mary Searcy is a delightful mix of comic timing and heartfelt depth.  Amneris could easily be a one-note bore, but not here.  Ms. Searcy's lovely voice gets the evening started with the captivating prologue number, "Every Story Is a Love Story", and is quite entertaining in "My Strongest Suit", a veritable tribute to all things ego.  It is in the powerful ballad "I Know the Truth", though, that she allows us to see some real dimension in Amneris.

Michael Robinson's Radames is a commanding presence - a captivating mixture of rugged masculinity and emotional depth.  It is easy to see why both Amneris and Aida are so taken with this man.  Robinson is a gifted singer and every single one of his numbers thrills the ears and moves the heart.  He particularly stands out in the quartet number "Not Me" and in the stunning duet with Aida, "Elaborate Lives."  That number really showcases his chemistry with his co-star - it is both romantic and passionately sexy.  And at the tragic end of the story, he is a pillar of strength with a palpable sense of fear at the same time.  What an honest moment.

Ashley Parker (seen recently in Toby's Baltimore's Ragtime as Sarah) is the perfect Aida.  She is strong and regal, honest and crafty, and always deeply passionate.  You believe she is a Nubian queen.  One need only watch her face to get every possible nuance of feeling at any given second of Aida's journey.  It helps that she is an amazing singing actress.  She not only sings every song with a recording quality, she throws every ounce of her considerable acting strength in each and every note.  Highlights of her performance include the aforementioned "Not Me", "Elaborate Lives" and her arias "The Past is Another Land" in act one and "Easy as Life" in act two. 

Aside from some unfortunate sound/microphone issues, and a few somewhat clunky scene changes, this AIDA is one that you should not miss, from a theatre group that deserves the community's support.  I for one cannot wait to see what ArtsCentric comes up with next!

PHOTOS: TOP to BOTTOM: "Dance of the Robes" - Ashley Parker as Aida, Center; The Judgement Hall; "Dance of the Robes"; "I Know the Truth" - Mary Searcy as Amneris; "Elaborate Lives" - Michael Robinson and Ashley Parker.  Photos courtesy of ArtsCentric.

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