Elton John has worked on 5 musicals in the past two decades (according to IBDB!), two of which are much better than Aida. Aida felt like The Lion King for adults; meaning sex and skirts. The production was wonderful, and the Pantages felt very well suited for the show; but I felt like I had heard the songs before, seen the setting. Great production for a mediocre show. Though, in listening to the soundtrack again, I feel like it retains a heart...but nope. Going on impressions from the show.
Let me also clarify that Aida is not a touring production, but is part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Broadway Re-imagined series, a project doing renditions of popular Broadway shows by local theater companies. Aida is the first, done by Theater Latte Da.
I also would like to say I like the Pantages much more as a space than the Orpheum. I find the Orpheum very impersonal. Too many people, too far from the stage. In the Pantages, I can actually see the performers’ faces, and don’t have as much anxiety because of the sheer amount of people. And, the whole, “Oh, we’d like to get out of the middle of the row please.” and my constant paranoia that my afro is blocking the people behind me.
Let’s start with the bad stuff; I just don’t like the show. It feels like a Romeo and Juliet clone with the same Elton John formula you’d experience in The Lion King and Billy Elliot, which is better in both than in Aida. Story of two star-crossed lovers, both alike in dignity blah blah blah. A rock heavy ensemble with the occasional sprinkling of a Djembe or wind instrument (to set the mood) got old, especially with how loud the performance was. And I get that they were trying to modernize the story (one of the characters wore Converse, for instance) and that the sound was a part of that, but I really don’t want to hear more mediocre rock music when I go to a musical; with the African setting, why would you relegate your percussionist to shakers for most of it? How do screaming electric guitars help to communicate the setting? I demand answers Elton Johnnnnnn!!!!!!!!!!
I found the musical direction very stupid. And the formula-serious rock song, quirky pop song, power ballad-is nothing new. Alongside this production’s modern costume choice, literal “talking head” pharaoh (yes, we know pharaohs were thought to be gods, let us see them onstage anyway), and blaring rock concert esque lighting and sound (complete with hissing monitors), this production of Aida (and I’m guessing many others) felt dissonant. All of the different parts seemed to be fighting against each other, and the grinding wore me down.
Onto the good stuff.
The performers were definitely some of the best I’ve seen all year. A huge vocal range from all the main characters was very impressive, though I felt like Radames (Jared Oxborough) was directed to play it a little too normal. He was depicted as this hardened soldier, never defeated in battle, but he was portrayed as an everyman, complete with a muscle shirt. Which could’ve worked in a musical that had a better understanding of dramatic tension, but this one lacked that. A poor choice of costuming for Zoser (Ben Bakken) and his lackeys-all black clothes, skirts, and Dr. Strangelove glasses-stripped the main antagonist of all his antagonizing might, and had me expecting a “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”, more than an actual threat.
And these things make me pretty sad because of how passionate the performers were Aida (Austene Van) and Mereb (Nathan Barlow) were amazing in their roles, especially without the awkward directing of Radames, Amneris (Cat Brindisi), and costuming of Zoser. And that’s not to say the others were bad, they were just as passionate, but the awkwardness of how straight they had to play their characters and/or in Zoser’s case, the costuming, made them much less pleasant to watch.
The set was pretty minimal, with a few things to tie to the Egyptian setting. Obelisks with hieroglyphs, a boat floating along the nile to represent set changes, and sometimes some cloths to represent a flowing river or to have something to cast shadows on. The ‘shadow cloth’ was really cool, but the novelty wore out the 5th time they used it. The band was on stage, which was sort of cool, but definitely didn’t help the dissonance.
The costumes were modern-ish, aside from the enslaved Nubians who were in raggedy blobs of fabric. Amneris had a set of somewhat modern dresses, seeing as that’s “[Her] Strongest Suit” (How cute!), and Mereb was decked out in Converse for half of the show.
The costumes were weird.
It’s a little saddening that the best performance I’ve seen this season has been off-Broadway...and for Aida. It confirms my suspicions that I don’t like the Orpheum very much as a space, and that shows in my reviews. But Aida does leave me curious for what lies ahead for Broadway Reimagined.
TL:DR Theater Latte Da’s production of Aida was great; the show itself, not so much. If you like Aida, you should probably see this. If you haven’t seen Aida or don’t have an opinion on it, listen to the soundtrack to see if you should.