Zachary Scott Theatre Center's Aida' delivers some memorable moments, but not all sides of the musical's romantic triangle are in balance
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 11, 2005
Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through April 3
Running Time: 2 hrs
Like the pyramids that rise from the sands of their setting, the legendary love stories of ancient Egypt often come with three sides. Think of Cleopatra and her two Roman suitors, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. So it is with this tale of love in the time of pharaohs. The Nubian princess Aida and a captain of Egypt fall for each other, even though he captured and enslaved her people. And while war and bondage would seem enough of an obstacle to their love, the captain is also betrothed to the pharaoh's daughter, who now keeps Aida as her servant and seeks her aid in holding onto the captain's heart. It's a tangled affair, and given that it ends about as cheerily as Cleo's romance, it seems a curious choice for one of the Disney corporation's big-money theatrical musicals.
The Zachary Scott Theatre Center production provides a pretty good idea of what the Mouse Factory saw in the story. Aida is a strong-willed young heroine in the Belle/Mulan/Ariel/Pocahontas mold, willing to defy social custom, not to mention parental approval, for love. She and her captain, like so many Disney leads, must confront their "destiny" as defined by their elders (and either embrace it or reject it). It's classic coming-of-age drama, similar to that in Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and at times this feels like the offspring of those two predecessors in the Disney Theatricals line, with features of one (intelligent, assertive female lead, comic song about vanity, book by Linda Wolverton) blended with features of the other (themes of royal responsibility, villain plotting regicide, Elton John/Tim Rice score).
But despite this nagging sense of material recycled in pursuit of another corporate hit, Disney's Aida does create some engaging characters and compelling dramatic moments, which Zach delivers memorably. Director Matt Lenz, whose history with Aida dates back to its pre-Broadway run in Atlanta and a giant, malfunctioning pyramid that sabotaged the story, wisely opts for simplicity here. Designer Michael Raiford's stage-sized sandbox bathed in lush amber light provided by designer Jason Amato is all this production needs to suggest Egypt, and one rolling platform elegantly shifts locations. Such an approach really serves to focus on the humans at the heart of Aida, where Kia Dawn Fulton stands proudly in the center. She projects royalty, partly through the regal posture she adopts but chiefly through her singing; she has a voice beyond her years: strong, full, colored by sorrow and regret as well as joy and enthusiasm. Fulton shows Aida growing into her role as ruler, gradually understanding the needs of her people and the hope she gives them. As she leads them through the anthemic "The Gods Love Nubia" featuring a rich solo by Toni Smith and voices shaped in thrilling ways by musical director Allen Robertson Fulton's Aida becomes a radiant beacon of inspiration.
Aida's opposite number, the Egyptian princess Amneris, makes an equally strong impression here, thanks to Jill Blackwood. Initially, she has a splendidly crafted comic role right out of the Golden Age of American musical comedy: the vain little rich girl whose every line, playing off her over-the-top narcissism, is a surefire laugh-getter, and Blackwood wears it as fabulously as she does those posh gowns her character adores. (Gowns that are rendered with winning extravagance and wit by designer Susan Branch.) Blackwood relishes this comic excess, but when the story turns and requires Amneris to deepen in character, Blackwood shifts subtly and gracefully into a woman puzzled and in pain over her beloved's pull away from her.
Unfortunately, not all the sides of Aida's romantic triangle are in balance. The focus of these women's attention is described as being a commanding soldier and restless adventurer, but in performance he comes off more as a college boy, his casual dress and actor Wade Carroll's casual air suggesting a cocky child of privilege for whom everything comes easily and who always expects to get his way. Now Carroll does exude a scruffy charm and sing beautifully, and to be fair, the part is written with Radames sporting an adolescent angst that recalls Rebel Without a Cause, but Carroll isn't able to make the role much more than James Dean arguing with his dad. And with Radames growing younger as the two women who love him grow so much more mature, this romance of ancient Egypt can't quite form the kind of classic, even-sided pyramid that calls to us across the ages and inspires our wonder,