BWW Review: AIDA at Uptown Players & Turtle Creek Chorale

After the success of the animated hit THE LION KING, the folks at Disney brought back Elton John and Tim Rice to create another family-friendly film for their vault. In 1996, a reading took place for this upcoming movie musical based on Verdi's Italian opera AIDA. Although the movie would never come to fruition, the project opened as a Broadway musical of the same name and was nominated for five Tony Awards in 2000. The production had four successful years before heading out on two national tours, eventually being licensed for amateur rights. Today, although the show (especially John and Rice's score) is celebrated among the theatre community, AIDA is a rare gem to find in regional theatres. Fortunately, for one weekend only, the gods of Uptown Players and Turtle Creek Chorale present a worthy "concert version" that shouldn't be missed.

Upon the exit of leading lady Heather Headley (who won a "Best Actress" Tony Award for the title role), pop divas jumped at the opportunity to portray the Nubian princess on the Great White Way. When Deborah Cox, Toni Braxton, and Michelle Williams each made their debuts, I purchased front row seats to see their varied takes on the role. Now, taking my seat at opening night of this Dallas performance, I waited to see how this Aida would compare. I was definitely not disappointed. Although Dallas actress Feleceia Benton might not (yet) be a household name, her rich vocals and commanding stage presence are indicative of future epic success. When Benton belted the final notes of "Dance of the Robe" on opening night, the audience went wild, giving an extended ovation before the show could continue.

Kyle Igneczi (Radames) and Grace Neeley (Amneris) join Benton to complete the love pyramid in this Egyptian tale. You may recognize Igneczi and Neeley as the same dynamic duo whose flawless performances were unanimously celebrated in Uptown Player's recent HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. Although each of their character's vocals seem virtually impossible to sing without some occasional shouting, Igneczi and Neeley have both the vocal skills and acting chops to create exciting, intensely moving performances. And even though Neeley seems most at home on the high-energy rock vocals, she shines brightest in the more subtle moments, such as "Strongest Suit Reprise" and "I Know The Truth." In addition, Igneczi's ability to portray such a wide range of subtle emotions, including his character's intense struggle between commitment and personal desire, demonstrate his incredible versatility as a leading man.

When the full ensemble is onstage, the energy and emotion of the story is palpable. Perhaps the most moving song in the show appears at the finale of act one when the full company (along with the skilled singers from Turtle Creek Chorale) stands unified to sing "The Gods Love Nubia." Strong performances are also provided by supporting players Jonathan Bragg (Zoser), Alex Heika (Mereb) and Teresa Natera (Nehebka).

Although the cast does well finding the depth and emotion to this exciting musical, technical elements occasionally hinder this well-sung production. Director/Choreographer Ann Nieman struggled to execute a clear concept of a "concert" style production, with sophomoric scenery inconsistently slowing down the action, and dramatic scenes providing laughter in place of tension. With the exception of the energetic "Dance of the Robe," Nieman's choreography rarely furthered the plot, but also felt visually unsatisfying (despite a highly capable group of dancers). And the costume pieces seemed to be borrowed from productions of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, BOMBAY DREAMS and STARLIGHT EXPRESS, causing confusion about the time and places they intended to imply.

The glaring exception to the technical faux pas was the magnificent lighting, expertly designed and executed on the large City Performance Hall stage. It's often said that stage lighting is only noticed when the design does not support the show, but Scott Guenther's use of color and patterns is the best I've found in the many of shows I've covered in town.

DFW theatre enthusiasts interested in catching some of Dallas' top talents perform this scarcely done title only have two chances left: tonight, Saturday January 16th, and tomorrow, January 17th, 2016. Tickets and more information can be found HERE.

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From This Author Kyle Christopher West

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