BWW Reviews: Slow Burn's AIDA is Perfection Written in the Stars
Closing their biggest season to date, including a Disney premiere and a bucket list classic, Slow Burn Theatre company presents Aida, the Elton John and Tim Rice rock smash from the turn of the millennium. The ceaseless and chilling ballads bound through the Broward Center's Amaturo Theatre for the last time in Patrick Fitzwater's grandest season to date. Aida is perhaps the largest scaled show Fitzwater has yet tackled, in every possible aspect, technical and performative; from a surging introduction through the wrenching finale, Slow Burn's Aida is a bursting production guaranteed to shock and awe.
John and Rice's rock musical is a Disney-based rendition of Giuseppe Verdi's 1871 opera of the same name, the tragic love story that transcended class and culture. As Egypt wars with its neighbor Nubia, royalty is captured and enslaved by the other side with their identity still secret. Aida, Nubia's princess, becomes entangled in a passionate love with her enemy as she simultaneously seeks to liberate her people.
Not a step or word from Khalifa White's Aida can be restrained by any form of shackle- she is a royal woman who stands regal as she carves the air with every resounding note. White gives humor, pain, strength, tragedy, and a better vocal performance than Heather Hedley- compare their Aida's in "Dance of the Robe", and White will stand queen. There is a fire in her sparkling eyes and fire in her pained soul as she fights, but a fragility in her every romantic struggle. She remains out of melodrama, even through her hyperbolic ballads with her lover, Radames. The empowerment of her refusal to cooperate, the drive she gives in the rising "The Gods Love Nubia," showcase a heroine that subverts tradition, but without the realistically shown unbreakable soul that remains internally conflicted, Aida would not succeed.
With a chemistry so electric it charges the show, White pairs with the foolish Radames (played by the very wise and talented Stephen Millett) to give John's biggest numbers. White and Millett provide a dynamic in "Written in the Stars", the well-known smash, that scores an emotional climax in the second act to embed in any audience's mind. Millett himself sings as a young Tim Neeley mixed with the sultry Aaron Tveit, making his Radames all the more engaging in his rebellious numbers, such as "Like Father, Like Son."
Beginning the show with a razor solo and refusing to let audiences down until her final notes, Amy Miller Brennan's Amneris delivers the counter-point to White that can't be measured. Returning after a brief hiatus, Brennan is back to remind the community what makes her performances so celebrated. In the hands of Brennan, Amneris' growth and development is humorous, tragic, and most of all, inspiring, as the ditzy heir becomes a coldly sensible voice of reason towards the close. The dazzling rock belt she throws in "Every Story is a Love Story" gets Aida's heart rate racing and never lets it go- one of the few times a soloist has managed to start such a large show with such independent energy.
Occasionally, a featured performer, given barely a name, let alone significance in story, can manage to capture a show's soul and leave behind a scar in the hearts of audiences- the only performance this year who has managed this feat to date is Kendra Williams. Her Nehebka, given three sections of song and no weight in plot, is a haunting force of wonder. The soulful, reverberating dirges she gives in her voice tell tomes- along with White and Andre Russell, Williams makes "The Gods Love Nubia" a stadium-sized number that bowls audiences out of their seats. Williams needs no dialogue and no spot light to steal hearts and give Nehebka her own brand of enslaved pains.
The caring and the cruel are given in Andre Russell and Lawrence Buzzeo, a set of characters who give two very separate, but equally enjoyable, stories. Russell's Mereb is an Eponine-esque love story, pushed to heights by his wonderful voice- "Not Me", a song focusing on the main love triangle, somehow gives Russell a chance to dazzle from the sidelines. Buzzeo, on the other hand, is the ultimate power-grabber as Zoser, one whose dark, purging cruelty gives Aida the needed tension (especially how Buzzeo leads the murderous "Another Pyramid").
Under these peaks, Fitzwater has built pyramids with his ensemble, the unbelievable support of performers like Jerel T. Brown's dancing and ELisa Danielle's hilarious nuances as Brennan's handmaiden. The asymmetrical choreography Fitzwater has set work wonders with his cast, in the balletic fighting of "Another Pyramid" and the belly-dancing of "My Strongest Suit." When this strong choreography mixes with the ensembles overwhelming voices, numbers like "Dance of the Robe" and "Halfway to Heaven" turn into blockbuster scenes that make Aida too big for its stage.
Thomas M. Shorock, who designed the lighting for last year's Titanic, has presented Aida in shades and visual grandeur- he turns the show into a rock concert experience you'd expect Elton himself would use. Despite some truly disappointing spot lights, the rotating specials and use of circles of light, along with wise color choice in crucial moments, give Shorock almost complete control over the moods of Aida and the gorgeous numbers. Without this rock aspect, or his use of the circles, Aida may have lost some of it's explosive and engaging power that changes the opera into a true show.
Returning costumer Rick Pena has found himself in a challenge, with dozens upon dozens of costumes. As the show progresses, colors and styles change with the characters growth- White is first in a regal purple, but finds herself in black as her conflict rises. The runway sequence of The Strongest Suit" must have been a project alone- ELisa Danielle struts on looking like a white-clad Anna Karenina, while Brennan came in with an outlandish head-piece and glittering gown. Even his men's outfits, such as Millett and his soldiers, showcase intricate detailing and wonder of the Egyptian and Nubian cultures.
The scenic design of Sean McClelland was strangely symmetric- the trademark McClelland asymmetry has been taken by FItzwater's choreography. The shock came when it became apparent how well his set functions- the Egyptian pillars are gorgeous, and small set pieces change so slightly to transport the plot wherever he wishes.
Aida represents a much deserved victory lap for Slow Burn, the biggest show Fitzwater has done, yet still the most seamless. With two of the biggest performers he's ever utilized, an outstanding all-together cast, tech to dazzle, there's nothing Fitzwater is unable to give in the finale to Slow Burn's best season yet. Whether a die-hard Elton fan or someone unfamiliar with even the Verdi opera, someone who knows theatre or a person just in need of a love story in a concert, Aida will change your life and move your heart along the Nile.
Aida plays at the Amaturo Center from April 20th-May 7th. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door, though sales are recommended in advance- tickets are selling fast.
Photos: Rodrigo Balfanz