San Diego Theater Review: AIDA (Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista)

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by Tony Frankel on June 27, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


There are two beautiful reincarnations with Moonlight’s production of Aida, a 2000 Disney outing that never would have seen the light of day were it not for the celebrity and history of both composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice. The first is part of the musical’s plot: The same doomed, forbidden romance seen in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name takes the tragic love story and ends it with a sudden coda of hope that lasts seconds, but will live in my memory forever. The second reincarnation arrives courtesy of director/choreographer John Vaughan, who takes a flawed musical with truly forgettable songs and creates a triumphant theatrical experience.

Sure, Aida was a Broadway success with 1,852 performances, and regional theaters consistently perform it, but the best part is the libretto by three book writers: Beauty and the Beast’s Linda Woolverton, M Butterfly’s David Henry Hwang, and Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls)—and even that has a fair amount of cheesy, jokey, overwrought moments. The Tony-winning score arrived on the Broadway scene when spectacles came with scores full of power ballads, anthems, novelty numbers and opportunities to showcase dance—who cares if the CD gathers dust on the shelf? Mr. John’s music keeps soaring but only the tiniest bit of melody sticks, and Mr. Rice’s lyrics border on puerile (it’s as if healthy cousin musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat gave birth to this genetically defective child). Yet to prove how far celebrity goes, the show is actually called Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida.

It takes place in ancient Egypt, but its sensibility is purely modern. Almost every timeless epic tale has a love triad. Here, we have Radames (powerful Richard Bermudez, both in voice and build), an Egyptian captain who loves exploring and conquering; Amneris (comically commanding Bets Malone), Pharaoh’s posturing daughter to whom he’s been betrothed for almost a decade; and Aida (soulful Daebreon Poiema), the newly captured Nubian princess Radames presents to Amneris as a “gift” (read: imprisoned maidservant) after his latest campaign.

Amneris and Radames each become enchanted by the resilient, shrewd woman who has come into their lives—Amneris finally has a confidante who truly appreciates her situation, and Radames has found his soulmate.

Scheming and conspiracy ensues. Radames’ servant Mereb (Terrance Spencer) and other enslaved Nubians keep secret Aida’s royal status; and Radames’ devious dad, Zoser (mellifluous Bill Ledesma), is gradually poisoning Pharaoh (Greg Nicholas) while expediting nuptials for Radames so that his son will become Egypt’s ruler. Learning of Radames’ passion for Aida through his many scouts, Zoser commands her execution.

The gorgeous costumes are a fashion show of originality, a mash-up of ancient Egypt and Grace Jones’ wardrobe, while the gigantic convincing techno-bar sets tower over the terrific cast (both sets and costumes provided by Music Theatre of Witchita). Jean-Yves Tessier’s original lighting design adds the drama that the score lacks. Vaughan’s choreography pulses with character, especially the group numbers involving ministers and the captured Nubians. Thanks to Jim Zadai’s incredibly balanced sound design, Lyndon Pugeda’s wonderful orchestra never drowned out the singers.

While one may wish for stronger material, the story and a super-professional cast—of which only three are Equity members—definitely kept my attention (the non-Equity Bermudez also nailed it in Musical Theatre West’s Evita). And although I loved the sensitive, palpably hopeful ending, I think I’ll stick to Verdi in the future.

photos by Ken Jacques Photography

Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida
Moonlight Stage Productions
Moonlight Amphitheatre
1200 Vale Terrace Drive in Vista
ends on July 1, 2017
for tickets, call 760.724.2110 or visit Moonlight Stage

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