Despite some opening night technical glitches and onstage mistakes that could easily have derailed the production, Circle Players opens its 2012-13 season in ambitious style with its production of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida-the pop music-heavy musical theater offering inspired by Giuseppe Verdi's classic Italian opera Aida. Featuring a triumvirate of capable, confident and consummately talented actors-LaToya Gardner, Kevin Mead and Lisa Graham-in the show's leading roles, it is a beautifully sung, interestingly staged and tremendously affecting musical that succeeds even despite the limitations of director Ralph Gabriel's sometimes questionable choices.
The story of the enslaved Nubian princess Aida (the authoritative Gardner) and her budding romantic relationship with her captor, Egyptian Army captain Radames (Mead, whose voice belies his relative youth) is brought to life by John and Rice via a score that is filled with some beautiful pop music ballads ("Elaborate Lives" and "Written in the Stars"), a gospel anthem ("The Gods Love Nubia," which showcases Gardner's powerful voice to perfection), some Motown-inspired melodies ("My Strongest Suit," which shows off Graham's insouciance in all its charms) and evocative African-tinged music ("Dance of the Robe" and "Easy As Life") that helps give the musical a sense of historical context, however inaccurate it might be.
Clearly, the musical is less serious in tone than the opera-certainly, the themes of the tale of Aida remain heart-wrenchingly compelling, but they are leavened by liberal doses of humor and enough contemporary anachronisms to keep both the ensemble and their audience on alert-and the book, by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, is charmingly crafted in such a way to relate the story of slavery, court intrigue and romantic indiscretions more accessible for modern audiences. Just as Verdi was writing in the idiom of his own time and place in popular culture, so too do the creative minds behind this updated version of Aida.
To fully enjoy Aida, one must leave off the opulence and grandeur of the operatic stage and instead cloak oneself in an unassailable love of musical theater-with the point from there to here not all that circuitous or off-putting-to become immersed in a timeless tale of forbidden love that endures in spite of all the events that conspire to render it meangingless and inconsequential.
This modern retelling of Aida begins in the Egyptian room of a modern museum of antiquities, wherein a handsome young man and striking young woman first meet, propelling the story back in time to reveal the origins of the story of Aida, Radames and Amneris who provide the three points of a romantic triangle that continues to inspire new creations. The opening scene, as staged by Gabriel, seems rather confusing: There are too many people on the stage for the scene and the initial meeting between Gardner and Mead (who will morph into Aida and Radames) is lost in the process and Graham's Amneris' other-worldly presence only seems confounding. Gardner and Mead should be featured more prominently in this scene; in fact, their first gaze upon each other should be the impetus for the statue of Amneris to come to life. As staged, Graham's exquisite Amneris begins singing "Every Story is a Love Story" almost immediately at curtain, losing the impact of this pivotal moment in the show's progression.
The play's final scene, which returns us to the museum, is handled far more artfully, but then again the stage is filled with too many bodies for the significance of the opening and closing scenes to be felt as it should be.
As the play's time and setting shifts to ancient Egypt, when Radames returns with his bounty of Nubian slaves from the battlefield, we are introduced to an all-female battalion of Egyptian soldiers which presents an even greater sense of detachment from reality than even the over-crowded stage in the show's opening number. Clearly, you must suspend all disbelief if the show is to succeed and you are able to come to that point, thanks to the stellar performances of Gardner, Mead and Graham-who are given able assistance by Tyler Clarke Kennedy Samuel as Mereb, Radames' conniving and industrious servant, and Tony Bernui as Zoser, Radames' duplicitous father.