BWW Review: Kadime Kanyinda Gives a Star Turn in the Carrollwood Players' Hit and Miss Production of Elton John and Tim Rice's AIDA
The show's beginning was, to put it mildly, rough. I braced myself early on for what I dreaded would be an excruciatingly long night. When the show first started, and some of the ensemble members started singing their solo moments of the opening number, they sounded horribly pitchy like they were in a subpar middle school musical without a choral program. I feared the worst. Was this what the night had in store for us? I didn't know what to expect when these non-singers' vocals went in one direction while the music went in the other. If this is what the first song delivered, then what horrors awaited us for the next two or so hours?
My fears were soon allayed when Kadime Kanyinda made her entrance as AIDA.
I can't stress enough what a talent Ms. Kanyinda is. She owns the stage like few actresses; her acting is powerful, her vocals exquisite and heart-breaking. Beautiful as a model, stoic and strong, a standout on any stage anywhere, Ms. Kanyinda had me at "You know nothing about me and care even less" from "The Past is Another Land." I know nothing about the performer personally, but I do know talent when I see it, and I know when I see that X-factor, that quality that separates the talented groundbreakers from the mere mortals. And Ms. Kanyinda is certainly one of those rare groundbreakers; she has that force of personality that changes the molecules onstage whenever she enters. You can't take your eyes off of her. Imagine the stoicism and regality of a young Leontyne Price, merge it with the potential to be a standout talent like Heather Headley or Jennifer Hudson, and you have this young performer (she's just twenty years old).
When Kanyinda's character is not onstage, the production inevitably suffers. Kanyinda is so good that she should be seen by all theatre-goers. She also needs to audition for every upcoming show available, at least every musical, moving on up to local professional theatres like freeFall, American Stage and Stageworks. She is quite a find, a rising star in the making. She has the potential for greatness if she wants it.
I wish the rest of this AIDA was as stellar as Ms. Kanyinda's performance.
Elton John and Tim Rice's retelling of AIDA, based on the famous Verdi opera set in ancient times about a Nubian slave in love with an Egyptian army captain, has come a long way from its early days (1998) in Atlanta when it was called Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida. Its Broadway run started exactly twenty years ago (March of 2000) and lasted four years and 1,852 performances. Although the show won numerous Tony Awards, even one for Best Original Score, it surprisingly (and criminally, at least to AIDA fans) was not even nominated for the Best Musical award. (Contact won that year.)
I know people who love this show more than almost any other. I am not one of them. I appreciate many of the songs, and admire the theme that love never dies even after death, but something keeps me from diving full throttle into AIDA-mania. I found myself drawn to some of the performances, some of the moments, but it's nowhere close to being a favorite or even a near-favorite (or one that I need to listen to intently again).
The songs, for the most part, are certainly fun. You can hear traces of classic Elton John in numbers like "Not Me" and "Written in the Stars." He also stretches himself by tackling other musical genres: There's the Motown-influenced "My Strongest Suit," the Africanized "Dance of the Robe," and the quasi-Reggae of "Another Pyramid." Watching the show, I found myself playing a secret game: "Identify That Musical Style!" ("Like Father Like Son," at least as performed here, stumped me.)
The best song of the lot is the last number in Act 1: "The Gods Love Nubia." This rip-roaring Gospel classic is beautifully rendered, where Kanyinda's Aida really showcases her vocal chops. Equally as good here is PaVonne Scott as Nehebka, whose spine-tingling vocals catapult the song into the heavens.
As Aida's love interest, Radames, Nick Cooper certainly strains to sound like Adam Pascal (who played the part on Broadway). He's a determined fireball of a performer, and it took me awhile to warm to him, which I believe is by design. I began appreciating him more as the show went on. By the end, I was rooting for him and Aida.
As Radames' would-be bride, Princess Amneris, Keira Osborne, a student at Carrollwood Day School, is quite a find. This young performer is a tremendous belter, even if she doesn't always sustain the higher notes of some of her songs. She's spunky, attitudinal, feisty, pouty and energetic. Although still a teenager, Osborne gives the second best performance here.
Topher Larkin is likable and enjoyable to watch as Mereb, and Juan Alejandro is a towering presence with great facial expressions as the villain, Zoser. But Alejandro screams most of his lines, both in his dialogue and in his singing. I don't know what to make of his vocal work in "Another Pyramid" and "Like Father Like Son"; if it's his goal to come across loud and harsh, then he certainly succeeds. Looking not unlike Zandor Vorkov in the camp horror film Dracula Versus Frankenstein, Alejandro exudes intensity; but he becomes too intense, without any shading. He even attempts a classic villain laugh, like Zorak in Space Ghost.
The ensemble starts off shockingly rocky, and the singing is often not where it should be (it sometimes sounds more appropriate for singing in a shower rather than on a stage). In other instances, like in the aforementioned "The Gods Love Nubia," their harmonies work wonders. I like how some members of the ensemble are actual characters, reacting to what is happening around them, rather than just being B.O.S. (Bodies On Stage). They also move the various set pieces, each one an important cog in this production.
Director Aaron Washington, one of area's performing arts treasures, keeps the show flowing. His choreography is often creative, full of life, as showcased with the various changing of wardrobes in "My Strongest Suit." The costumes are all over the place, a hodgepodge, but also a flashy, dazzling hoot. (You can tell the costume designer, Deborah Lastinger, had a lot of fun with this.) I'm not a fan of the set, which looked more appropriate for a Social Studies classroom than a theatre. But the lighting design, by David Fraga and Karl Tepfenhart, works well here (something of a rarity with the Carrollwood Players, never known for their creative lighting). For instance, during a stabbing scene, the lights turn blood red, and it's a very effective moment.
This production of AIDA is the definition of a hit-and-miss affair. But as I said in the very first paragraph, with Kadime Kanyinda in the lead, who cares? We have a chance to see a budding, brilliant performance by an amazing young actress, early in her career. There is no limit to where her enormous talents can lead, not even the sky.
AIDA closes on March 7th.