Consider the following recipe: one stage, an Egyptian war, the music of Elton John, and romance. The result? Aida, an enlightening story of Egypt’s oppression of the Nubian people, and how two lovers find each other across the conflict. Ultimately a tragedy, Aida includes great music and an interesting new perspective on ancient Egypt. Although this interpretation makes some confusing choices in technical parts and costuming, it is a worthy performance. Under the direction of Peter Rothstein at the Pantages Theater, enjoy the power of Aida.
The music was probably this musical’s “Strongest Suit,” to quote one number. Elton John composes a wonderful tapestry of songs for this musical with highlights of Elaborate Lives,” and “The God Loves Nubia,” among others. These songs are certainly not to be confused with the famous opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi under the same name: Aida. In this Aida, the band is loud, the singers are powerful, and their sound practically carries us to Nubia.
The show scores lower for technical aspects due to choices dealing with set. In general the set is skimpy and does not convince the audience we were in Egypt. In addition, the band may not have anywhere else to perform than onstage, but their physical presence dominates the scene with instruments, cords, and an enormous, skeletal tent structure. Two moveable stairways, which look like sections of catwalk, are frequently used to devastating aesthetic effect. But some innovation is found in screens used for shadow acting and a river of cloth.
The costumes are not particularly inspiring, but do bring up some deep questions about the play itself. The dark-skinned Nubians wear either rags or traditional dress, while the Egyptians, who are played exclusively by Caucasians, wear European-style military uniforms and, wait for it…kilts. Yes, kilts, and men’s garters. Keep in mind that this is during the time of ancient Egypt. Aside from the kilts, does the director wish to connect the symbols of African oppression by Europeans to this ancient conflict between Egypt and Nubia? Or does the costume choice simply reflect a desire to “modernize” this performance? Apparently, the audience is left to untangle the costuming mystery.
The rectifying part of this performance is the outstanding singing and acting of the main roles. Cat Brindisi plays Amneris, the ditzy, materialistic Egyptian princess, valiantly takes the helm as the only comic relief in the play and surprisingly, becomes the most dynamic character of all. During the play, she matures, finds friends, loses love, and becomes the ruler of Egypt. Since “Every Story is a Love Story,” we find a star-crossed romance between an Egyptian captain, Ramades, and the title role, Aida, the Nubian princess. Jared Oxborough (Ramades), despite an odd inflection in his voice, produces some nicely stylized solos. Last, but certainly not least, Austene Van (Aida) gives a brilliant portrayal of a conflicted, yet noble Nubian princess. Her voice makes all others pale in comparison for pitch and volume.
Aida brings to light a conflict that mars the reputation of ancient Egypt’s respected civilization. History is written by the winner, and Egypt was no exception: it won the game of history. But Aida shows that the mistakes of the past can be rediscovered, examined and can be an example for the future. This interpretation of Aida may make some mistakes of its own, but firmly presents the message of the play. Of course, there is plenty of dancing, singing and romance to go around. Be aware that although the show ends bittersweet, it all goes to show that civilizations may crumble and fall, but true love never fades.