There are only about a dozen cast members onstage at the exhilarating closing of Aida’s first act, but given their vocal power and emotional heft, you’d swear there were 30.
Constellation Theater Company’s version of the bombastic Elton John/Tim Rice musical Aida has been stripped down and made less Disney-fied than its Broadway predecessor, and the changes are welcome. The show’s small but mighty chorus absolutely brings down the house as Act One closes with “The Gods Love Nubia,” the spiritual-influenced anthem Egypt’s slaves sing of their beloved homeland.
In Aida, those slaves are moved from despair to hope courtesy of the arrival of the titular character, a princess in their country. Aida (the remarkable Shayla S. Simmons) has been captured while out adventuring by the Egyptian armies. Their captain Radames (Jobari Parker-Namdar) has offered her as a gift to his fiance, princess Amneris (Chani Wereley). The captain, reluctantly betrothed, takes a shine to Aida’s passion and bravery, and Amneris strikes up a friendship with her newest handmaiden as well. Aida finds herself torn between her own doomed love triangle, and the demands and her duty to her enslaved countrymen.
closes November 18, 2018
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It can be hard to see these as convincingly warring loyalties. Let’s put it out there: Radames is as arrogant and presumptuous as you’d expect anyone in the business of taking an entire country by force to be, and even as Aida pushes him towards some degree of self-awakening, it takes some suspension of disbelief to get on board with their love story.
Aida works to quelch these misgivings with a selection of gorgeous love songs: the tentative “Enchantment Passing Through,” the disbelief-spiked “Not Me,” and the ode to ill-fated love, “Written In the Stars.” Perhaps the most stirring of these is “Elaborate Lives” (originally the show’s title), which is admittedly powerful enough to move even the most cynical audience member and could easily pass as an R&B radio hit in the hands of the impressive Parker-Namdar and Simmons.
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Aida’s strength is in its songs (its dialogue can run ham-fisted; luckily, there isn’t much of it), and Constellation’s production lets the audience focus on the music (though occasional issues with microphone balance sometimes had one singer drowning out another during duets and trios). Aida, based on Verdi’s opera, is ultimately a tragic play, and the responsibility of occasional comic relief rests on the shoulders of Werely, the fashion-conscious princess strutting her way through the runway-esque “My Strongest Suit” (a routine that proves a great showcase for Kenann M. Quander’s glitzy costumes).
Luckily, Aida doesn’t underestimate her character, and the captivating Werely is given the chance to reveal some real pathos after her parading. Da’Von Moody also gives a standout turn as Mereb, a Nubian aide to Radames who acts as the show’s soul and conscience. If Aida’s Disney roots are visible anywhere in this production, it’s in the character of Radames’ father, Zoser (Greg Watkins), whose wicked laugh and unabashed scheming puts him alongside such cartoon villains as Ursula and Scar (watch Watkins have particular fun with the intricately choreographed “Another Pyramid,” his agenda-setting number).
Constellation director Michael J. Bobbitt’s production does its best to put more of a focus on the plight of Aida’s Nubian prisoners than its royal Romeo and Juliet, particularly in the artfully staged “The Dance Of The Robe.” In the year that Wakanda captured the imagination of the masses, Aida inspires more as a call to action than as a love story.
Aida. Directed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Musical Direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy. Choreography by Tony Thomas II. Scenic/Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban. Costume Designer: Kenann M. Quander. Sound Designer: Roc Lee. With Shayla S. Simmons, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Chani Wereley, Greg Watkins, Da’Von Moody, Ashley Johnson-Moore, Kaylen Morgan, Ian Anthony Coleman, Lawrence Hailes, Amber Lenell Jones, Wendell Jordan, Kaylen Morgan, Ashley K. Nicholas, Topher Williams, Tara Lynn Yates-Reeves. Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Review by Missy Frederick.