By Mitchell J. Near
"Aida" has as many fans as it does critics, but thankfully for the show it's the fans that pay the money for those glitzy orchestra seats. The fans really love the slick and sleek Tony Award-winning sets and lights that almost hypnotize viewers with a simplicity that borders on elegance.
Fans also love the old-as-time love story between a powerful leader and a humble slave girl. But mostly they love the pop-laced score by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Critics of the show despise it as another corporate, cookie-cutter production from soulless behemoth Walt Disney. And they hate the syrupy score by John and Rice, even if it did win another Tony for Best Musical Score.
It's a truism, though, that the majority makes the rules, so the Disney-
John-Rice production is having a run at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre through July 8.
Naysayers are not welcome, according to the show's press agent, Ed Kiley.
"The response to this show is incredible," Kiley says in true public relation fashion. "People love it."
He's not just resorting to hype. The show was a smash on Broadway, where it collected four of the five Tony awards it was nominated for. (It also won for Best Actress in a Musical.) And the touring company is an almost identical twin to the Broadway version, which means viewers can get the same production values without heading to New York's Great White Way.
"It's almost a carbon-copy of the Broadway company. It's essentially no different in its production," Kiley says.
Starlight's increased devotion to bigger company shows is making it a frequent stop for traveling productions. Last year the outdoor theater imported national touring shows of "Miss Saigon" and "Fosse."
"Starlight is taking on more first-class productions," Kiley says. "They are becoming a major presenter and are definitely one of THE stops on the road."
as many other productions is the big-budget effort that went into the look and sound of its numbers. The set, lights and score all reflect the talented individuals that created them -- and their paychecks. What makes "Aida" different is that the attention is on the storyline and less on jaw-dropping effects that have been the focus of many shows ("Phantom of the Opera" and its chandelier, "Miss Saigon" and its helicopter).
That storyline also makes it unlike Disney's other Broadway stories, "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."
"Lots of people know it's based on a famous opera," Kiley says. "It's more of an adult storyline than one for kids."
This stage version features Simone, daughter of legendary songstress Nina Simone, in the title role. Her stage lover is played by Patrick Cassidy, son of legendary "Partridge Family" sitcom mom, Shirley Jones, and brother of former teen idol David Cassidy.
Cassidy may seem like a weird choice for the role, but since he's a former pop star singing a pop score, it's not as much of a stretch as people think. The performer grew up in front of an audience, and has made some versatile and eclectic acting choices. Cassidy has done everything from TV's "Lois and Clark" to the edgy AIDS movie "Longtime Companion." He was in the off-Broadway version of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," and acted opposite former failed pop star and Charlie's Angel, Cheryl Ladd, in the Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun."
So if it all seems like a strange confection of class (Simone), success (John and Rice) and kitsch (Cassidy), don't worry: It somehow works out in the end -- just like a good love story should.
"A lot of people come and don't know what 'Aida' is," Kiley says, "until they sit in the theater and see for themselves what a great show it is."
And then Kiley, like a true press agent, adds, "and Elton John really did write a great pop score."
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