BWW Review: AIDA - ELTON JOHN & TIM RICE at Wilmington Drama League
AIDA, in its musical form as penned by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) is a less than compelling attempt to modernize Verdi's beloved, triumphal grand opera of the same name. As written by Verdi, the story of enslaved Nubian princess, Aida, falling in love with Egyptian Captain and war hero, Radames, who is otherwise betrothed to Egyptian princess, Amneris, is an exquisite, tragic love story filled with tension, discourse, treachery, heartache and sorrow. One can listen to single arias from the opera - Celeste Aida, Ritorna vincitor!, or the duet O terra addio (which audiences always hum while exiting) - and be completely involved emotionally without visual cues. Great music captivates the listener. The musical version failed to emotionally capture this listener on any level - tragic love story, political intrigue, embattlement for freedom. I left without a tune in my head. I felt heartache; but, only because I expected better from two amazingly talented, heavy-hitters such as Sir Elton and Sir Tim.
The performers in Aida at Wilmington Drama League are very talented. This production, however, was not the vehicle in which to fully engage their artistic engines. The MVP award of opening night goes to Brendan Sheehan playing Radames. Mr. Sheehan navigated one obstacle after nothing with determination. Beginning with the first act, his body mic wasn't functioning, whereby he sang his heart out in an effort to propel above the pit band, other leads and chorus. During the second act, Mr. Sheehan was blocked to ascend an open-ended, teetering set of stairs, which must have been misplaced because (1) he had a look of trepidation when approaching the stairs, and (2) when he reached the last step, he was unlit. There were other technical mishaps throughout, including two instances where Amneris left the stage and her giggling and commenting could be heard in the house via her body mic, several irregular lighting cues, as well as a blinking light during scene changes.
Although technical issues can lessen the artistry of some performers, this was not the case for Cara Clase (Aida), Mr. Sheehan, Kyra McKillip (Amneris) and Rick Fountas (Zoser). All were in tremendous voice. Ms. Clase sang the title role wholeheartedly and with enough passion to keep the audience engaged in her storytelling. It was (at least for me) especially nice to see Mr. Fountas back on stage. His voice hasn't aged a bit, still ringing with an energetic brilliance that give goosebumps. Ms. McKillip imparted just the right amounts of sassy silliness of a girl in love turned jilted woman with a take charge attitude.
While vocal performances were strong, many faltered in delivering a fully devised character. I place part of the blame on the lackluster book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang. Also, the chemistry between Ms. Clase and Mr. Sheehan was a bit underwhelming. An illicit love affair, such as theirs, should provide more sparks. There were no smoldering, lingering looks or "by chance" opportunities to gently touch each other. By the time their relationship reached acuity, it was played as a matter of fact rather than an uncomfortable discovery. Stage Director Mikal Odom may want to flesh out opportunities for more active blocking. The songs were, for the most part, presented in what is known in the opera world as "park and bark." This is an absolute no-no in musical theater (and now also for operas). Having leads repeatedly plant themselves downstage to sing is boring. On the other hand, that blocking did come in handy several times when the band (Anthony Vitalo, Music Director) overpowered the singers. The mixing of the body mics became hollow and thin when adjusted to compensate. Mr. Odom fared better with his choreography skills with sleek, stylized movements which were often danced by male ensemble members.
What would a large musical such as Aida be without a few choice moments for lesser known characters to shine? The standouts in this production were Malcolm Richardson as Mereb and Meredith Bell as Nehebka. Both can sing a song to its pinnacle effectively and effortlessly. Mr. Richardson's smooth, rich tone adapts well to deftly floating higher notes when needed. I don't think Ms. Bell had a body mic, or if she did, it wasn't on or turned up enough (and perhaps the band could back off a bit). This is a disservice to the audience because her solo work during The Gods Love Nubia is a MUST hear opportunity.
The original Broadway run included Heather Headley (Aida), Adam Pascal (Radames) and Sheri Rene Scott (Amneris), and ran for 1,852 performances. Not too shabby of a statistic. Unfortunately, John and Rice missed the mark in creating a musical that lives on long after the doors to the theater have been sealed shut.
Watch a clip from rehearsal:
Music by Elton John
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, David Henry Hwang
Stage Director - Mikal Odom
Music Director - Anthony Vitalo
Wilmington Drama League
10 W. Lea Boulevard
Wilmington, DE 19802
Runs May 3 to May 12