Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre

Nashville's Maya Riley Triumphs in Title Role in Elton John and Tim Rice's Musical

By: Oct. 01, 2022
Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Maya Riley and company in Studio Tenn and TPAC's Aida in Concert.
-photos by Keoni Keur

Studio Tenn - the Franklin-based professional theater company - launches its 2022-23 season in collaboration with Tennessee Performing Arts Center for a concert staging of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, playing for just two nights at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre September 30 and October 1. Under the direction of Studio Tenn artistic director Patrick Cassidy (who shares duties with co-director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre), Aida features a starry cast of actors with Broadway pedigrees (Jackie Burns and Rex Smith), along with some of Music City's most beloved stage veterans (Bakari Jamal King and Mark Cabus) and featuring the stunning triumph of a young woman who audiences have watched grow up on Nashville stages (Maya Riley) in the title role.

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Ryan Link and May Riley

One of the most talked-about productions of the 2022-23 season, Studio Tenn and TPAC's Aida clearly delivers the theatrical goods, assembling an impressively skilled and enormously talented cast - every role from the leading characters to the smallest ensemble part is assayed by noteworthy performers - and audiences are certain to leave the theater invigorated and inspired by what has transpired on the Polk Theatre stage in the intervening two-and-one-half hours.

Staged rather simply, without the fuss of an overdesigned production for a concert, this Aida puts the focus squarely upon the actors brought together by Cassidy and his creative team and on the music, employing plenty of theatrical wizardry to evoke the time and place of the events via the use of projections designed by Colin Peterson and Sawyer Wallace's elegantly conveyed scenic design. Michael Barnett's exquisite lighting - which ranks among the very best we've seen from him over the past few years - not only is evocative and atmospheric, but it also aids the audience in determining where to focus their attention. Mark Zuckerman's sound design provides the concert production with an aural power that is often lacking in theater productions in Music City; in fact, we've stopped paying much attention to sound design here because it is quite often so disappointing. Thankfully, Zuckerman knows what he is doing and succeeds in allowing every word spoken and every lyric sung to be heard.

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Jackie Burns as Amneris

Created by John and Rice, with a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, Aida debuted on Broadway in 2000 (after an initial run in Atlanta in 1998) as the latest musical theater offering from Disney Theatricals. Inspired by a children's book by renowned soprano Leontyne Price, which in turn paid homage to Giuseppe Verdi's 1871 opera Aida (one of the canonical works of that particular genre), Disney originally planned the musical as an animated film, which perhaps explains the sometimes quizzical mood changes that are a part of the stage musical: deeply serious and melodramatic moments are leavened by ample comic relief, and the dastardly villainous Zoser is countered by sassy sidekick Mereb in the vein of most Disney musicals.

The musical score, much of which sounds like other titles in the Elton John catalogue, offers some spectacular numbers which elevate the work to something rather more special and representative of the inspiration of myriad musical genres (not unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), including the gospel-tinged "The Gods Love Nubia" which closes out the first act with religious fervor as performed by Riley, the company and the Voices of Praise choir; the Motown-inspired "My Strongest Suit" (Jackie Burns is a knockout in every way possible in this wonderfully staged number that could surely inspire generations of drag queens still to come); and the energizing African rhythms that propel both "Dance of the Robe" and "Easy As Life," which in turn inspire McIntyre's best choreographic moments in the production. For fans more attuned to John's own pop music styles, the power ballads "Elaborate Lives" and "Written in the Stars" provide romantic and melancholy (even wistful despite the aforementioned power) anthems that allow the starcrossed lovers Aida (Riley) and Radames (Ryan Link) to achieve musical alchemy.

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Jackie Burns and company

Musical director Stephen Kummer leads the 14-member orchestra who play the musical score with the expected professionalism and creative ardor that has become a leading attribute of any Studio Tenn musical offering.

The concert's staging works well, which should come as absolutely no surprise, since Cassidy previously starred as Radames in the national touring company of Aida. Obviously, with his practical experience in the show and his consummate professionalism, he is able to bring the show to life in concert form in assured and focused fashion. In a particularly interesting turn of events - or an alignment of the theatrical stars - Cassidy, the touring Radames, directs Aida at TPAC at the same time that his friend Adam Pascal, Broadway's original leading man, is onstage in Andrew Jackson Hall in the touring production of Pretty Woman The Musical.

The collaboration of Cassidy with McIntyre as co-director and choreographer (assisted by Studio Tenn's Everett Tarlton) results in a show that is entertaining and engaging on multiple levels. McIntyre's choreography is enormously clever and shows off his talented, all-singing, all-dancing ensemble (which includes Carli Hardon, Gabrielle Ejibe, Ja'Naye Flanagan, William Harris III, Josh Jordan, Juliana Lamia, Tiffany Rae Mallari, Katie Breland, Calvin Malone and Kittrell Poe) to perfection.

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Carli Hardon and Maya Riley

Aida's stellar cast is led by Maya Riley, who should be a familiar face to every theater-goer in the Nashville area who has watched her talents grow and her presence mature since she first appeared in musical reviews under the aegis of Metro Parks' theater program directed by Carolyn German and in community theater productions helmed by such directors as Tim Larson. Her time at New York University was well-spent and she returns to Nashville as a triple-threat performer (already she's making her mark in productions with Nashville Shakespeare Festival, the Roxy Regional Theatre and Nashville Rep's upcoming The Cake) whose promise has only grown over the years and whose career will likely skyrocket given performances such as hers as the forthright noble Aida.

In short, Maya Riley is absolutely stunning in her starmaking turn as the Nubian princess who falls in love with her Egyptian captor. Self-assured and dynamic, her stage presence in palpable and her startling voice adds depth and dramatic import to every song she sings.

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Jackie Burns

Jackie Burns, who last was seen on a TPAC stage in the role of Beth/Elizabeth in the national touring company of If/Then (we heaped all manner of praise on her in our 2016 review), is sublime as the imperious and haughty Egyptian princess Amneris, giving a performance that is uproariously funny at one moment, heartbreakingly genuine at the next. Her powerhouse vocals, along with her command of the stage, ensures each of her musical numbers is a highlight of the evening's performances.

Ryan Link, who joined the production as a replacement for the previously announced Jon Robert Hall, gives a credible performance as Radames, with his strong vocals providing much-needed heft to his portrayal of the ill-fated military man. Broadway, TV and film veteran Rex Smith puts his own considerable vocal chops on full display as Zoser and he offers a compelling characterization in the process. Christian Boyd ably employs both his comedic and dramatic skills in the role of Mereb, Radames' servant who recognizes Aida as Nubian royalty.

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
Mark Cabus

Bakari Jamal King and Mark Cabus, two of Nashville's most respected, capable and talented stage veterans shine in their all-too-brief moments onstage. King is regal as Aida's father, the Nubian King Amonasro, and Cabus is powerful as Amneris' father, the Egyptian Pharaoh, who is slowly being poisoned to death by the nefarious Zoser.

Studio Tenn and TPAC's Aida is yet another impressive collaboration of the two entities and audiences still have one chance to witness for themselves what they have accomplished together. It would be worth your while to make sure you can get a ticket before it's too late.

Aida in Concert. Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang. Directed by Gerry McIntyre and Patrick Cassidy. Choregraphed by Gerry McIntyre. Musical direction by Stephen Kummer. Associate choreographer Everett Tarlton. Fight choreography by Carrie Brewer. Stage managed by Cecelia Lighthall. Presented by Studio Tenn and Tennessee Performing Arts Center at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre, Nashville. Through October 1. For details, go to www.StudioTenn.org or www.TPAC.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

photos by Keoni Keur



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