Judging by the applause and a standing ovation at evening's end, it was clear that the near capacity crowd drawn to the Lied Center on Wednesday night by the glitz of the Elton John-Tim Rice makeover of "Aida" was pleased by the well-oiled road show version of the 2000 Broadway hit.
Indeed, the Big League Theatricals production generated plenty of pizzazz. Its exuberant young cast, dazzling costumes, striking lighting and set design, and energetic nine-piece pit band all deserve kudos.
However, when one co-opts the title of a time-tested musical classic such as the beloved Giuseppe Verdi-Antonio Ghislanzoni "Aida," which debuted in 1871 for the opening of the Cairo Opera House, one hopes that there is good reason.
Alas, and in spite of Tony and Grammy recognition (which today are as much markers of promotional hype as artistic accomplishment), John's music, Rice's lyrics and the Linda Woolverton-Robert Falls-David Henry Hwang book simply fell flat.
Set in ancient Egypt, the story centers on a love triangle involving Aida, a Nubian princess enslaved by her Egyptian captors; Amneris, an Egyptian princess; and Radames, the Egyptian officer they both love. Exemplifying permutations of what today we might call the Stockholm syndrome, captive and captors develop feelings for one another that set up thematics dealing with love, loyalty, courage and betrayal.
This is promising material, especially since the sexual and political implications of race are brought to the fore via the casting of Amneris as a buxom blonde, Ramades as a warrior of the white Egyptian ruling class and Aida as an African and therefore exotic "other." Perhaps, one thought for a moment, the show will have something to say about the murderous racism of northern Africa. No such luck. In fact, John and Rice never quite figured out what they wanted the show to do or be.
In the first act, for example, Amneris is played as a me-generation material girl fretting about a cascade of shoes with an intensity worthy of Imelda Marcos. She opines that "It's such hard work to be loved by the masses." Poor girl. And as she frets over fabrics, she states, "I am what I wear." Now this was genuinely funny stuff that was delivered by Lean Allers with a ditzy delight reminiscent of Judy Holliday.
In the second act, however, such blithe spirits have disappeared, replaced by campy musical set pieces that individually provide the kind of pop-driven turmoil that has become the staple of "American Idol" sing-offs. With dialogue often bordering on the banal and reflecting characters with all the depth of tissue paper, the show quickly devolves into melodrama.
Still, this pop "Aida" had its charms. Again, the young cast of Broadway wanna-be's gave it the kind of earnest Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland heart-on-sleeve "let's put on a show" gusto that can't help but be admired. And although not the kind of hummable chestnuts once coined by the likes of Berlin, Kern and Gershwin, John's tunes had a kind of generic if indistinct pop appeal.
Opening and closing on a contemporary Nubian art exhibit (presumably the Metropolitan Museum of Art) was an effective frame for setting up the dream-like pretext for the story, which, at least for this spectator, failed to deliver.
Originally produced by Disney for Broadway, "Aida" exemplifies the kind of puffed up theatrical bon-bons now found up and down the Great White Way.