Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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REVIEW: A Chorus Line (Marriott Theatre)

Gotta Dance!

 

Chorus Line at Marriott

   
Marriott Theatre presents
   
A Chorus Line
   
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Directed by Mark Lococo
at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire (map)
Through October 31  |  tickets: $35-$48  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Mara Davi as Cassie - Chorus Line MarriottCelebrating its 35th anniversary in a terrific revival staged by Mark Lococo, A Chorus Line remains the late Michael Bennett‘s breakthrough backstage musical, winner of nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. In this "show before a show" the parts–the 17 dancers–outweigh the whole. That greater good is an imaginary musical where, as the hoofers swagger in Nancy Missimi’s gold lamé suits against massive mirrors, their Broadway fantasies come true. But by then we know “what they did for” dance.”

Most musicals are examples of art imitating life. Not so A Chorus Line. It fascinates because its constantly young cast insure that this show is a textbook case of life imitating art imitating life. (Actors in 2010 who could be the children of the 1975 cast are creating the 1975 creation that was itself inspired by the reality of 1975 dancers.) The recessed mirrors in Marriott’s Production perfectly symbolize the backstage, show-before-a-show nature of this unconventional depiction of the creation of a very conventional Broadway musical. (Remember: The finale, “One Singular Sensation,” is really intended as a backup to a star of the Streisand, Verdon or Ann Miller persuasion. “Chorus Line” may be all about dance but the “outside” musical that they’re creating is not.)  

It’s ironic that, after we get to know the "dance gypsies" chosen from the 24 who endure this grueling try-out, the survivors get swallowed up in "One," this massive finale where what counts is the lockstep anonymity of a kick line. The humanity that went into the song-confessionals, where the auditioners testified to the resilience, sexiness, escapism and transience of their trade, yields to the conformity of interchangeable parts. This "one singular sensation" is American individuality feeding American efficiency. Another all-too-American quality, at least at this stage of the recession, is the desperation that surges through “I Need This Job.”

 

Anika Ellis as Shiela - Chorus Line Marriott Bryan Knowlton as Paul - Chorus Line Marriott
Chorus Line - One Singular Sensation Nina Fluke as Val - Chorus Line Marriott
Chorus Line Cast - Marriott

Before that chorus/assembly line closes ranks, we’ve felt the full diversity of the dancers, as preserved from interviews that Bennett did with the original dancers some 35 years ago. It’s ironic that the current dancers may have their own stories but they’re in effect prisoners of the musical’s now-distant past.

In Lococo’s devoted reprise of this not-so-retro musical, a second (or third?) generation solidly replay the life stories of the 1975 originals, slinking and strutting their way through Bennett’s pizzazz-packed choreography (here re-imagined by Rachel Rockwell) and tearing into Marvin Hamlisch‘s sturdy score. This arena staging may be in the round but the mirrors work even better than in a proscenium  production. They may not suggest many more dancers than the cast itself but the recessed effect makes it look like we’re seeing memories as much as moments here.

Adam Estes as Gregory - Chorus Line MarriottFleshing out showbiz stereotypes with true-life immediacy, Alexander Aguilar relishes the effortless bravura of "I Can Do That" and Pilar Millhollen belts out the tough-girl wisdom of "What I Did for Love." As Sheila, the aging but indomitable siren, Anika Ellis purges her past in "At the Ballet," while Nina Fluke reinvents Val’s surgical saga in "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three."

In the one unsung solo, Bryan Knowlton digs heartache from Paul’s tale of a gay dancer unexpectedly accepted by his family. Registering the full joy of moving fast, buffed-up Max Kumangai is a blurry revelation.

As he shapes the audition-rehearsal with God-like omniscience, Chicago favorite Tim Gregory brings easy authority to confessor-choreographer Zach, though his soap-opera showdown with Cassie, his old flame, seems perfunctory. Undeterred, Broadway notable Mara Davi (who appeared in the recent revival) throws herself into "The Music and the Mirror," Cassie’s tour-de-force dance sequence. It should feel as if everyone who ever danced the part were with her but on opening night she seemed to lose her terpsichorean motivations and it fell flat.

First and always, the revival confirms the continuing cause for its docu-tribute: Bennett’s high-strutting, soul-stirring dances are a perfect match for the aspirations this musical will always extol.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Chorus Line - One Singular Sensation2

 

   
   

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REVIEW: Aida (Bailiwick Chicago)

Love conquers all, even in ancient Egypt

 

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Bailiwick Chicago presents
    
Aida
  
Book by L. Woolverton, Robert Falls and D.H. Hwang
Music by
Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by
Scott Ferguson
Music Directed by
Jimmy Morehead/Robert Ollis
at
American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 1st  |  Tickets:  $30-$45  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Egypt attacks Nubia. Women are abducted. The lead captor and enslaved princess-in-disguise share a passionate connection. Not your ordinary boy-meets-girl scenario, this musical establishes its premise from the first song, “Every Story is a Love Story.” Bailiwick Chicago presents Aida, the Tony Award winning Elton John and Tim Rice musical based on Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian opera of the same name. The 3859 Pharaoh’s daughter has been betrothed for nine years. To avoid settling down, her fiancé, Radames, has been pilfering villages along the Nile River. Everything changes when Radames imprisons Aida from Nubia. A plot to kill the Pharaoh, an uprising of Nubian slaves, the plan for a royal wedding – despite this political duress, an epic love story conquers all. An elaborate production set on a small stage, Bailiwick Chicago’s Aida triumphs simply with song, dance and a legendary love story.

In the title role, Rashada Dawan (Aida) is a regal force that commands the stage. Her physical presence is one of stately elegance. Her singing voice is a powerful authority beckoning adoration. The chemistry between Dawan and Brandon Chandler (Radames) is romantic captivation. Their duet “Elaborate Lives” elicits a combination of shivers and mistiness from any optimistic cynic in matters of the heart. Chandler’s vulnerability and Dawan’s strength are an irresistible coupling for an operatic love story. Bringing the humor to countries at war, Adrianna Parson (Amneris) plays the spoiled princess with a fashion obsession. Her ‘I am what I wear. Dress has always been my strongest suit’ attitude is flashy moxie. The contrasting styles, in dress and personality from Dawan, make Parson a standout in a supporting role. Another secondary character hitting the comedic notes is Aaron Holland (Mereb) as an enterprising slave.

 

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With a cast of twenty on a smaller stage, some of the scenes and transitions seem clunky. It’s trying to do too much with too many. At other moments, like “God Loves Nubia”, the magnitude of the numbers add to the impressive visual and audio spectacle. The large cast also adds to some costume speed bumps. Costume Designer Rick Lurie and a group of fashion designers have gone all out with the ladies for some multiple, extravagant wardrobe changes. Splurging on intricate details for the female cast, it seems the money ran out for the men. The guys are wearing their own personal cargo pants or shorts with distracting striped cummerbunds. And it’s not the slaves that are poorly dressed, it’s the wealthy Egyptians. Despite the big cast and small space, Gary Abbott and Kevin Iega Jeff have choreographed extraordinary dance routines. Whether dancers are rowing the boat, plotting a murder or modeling the latest fashions, the movement is original, tribal and athletic.

Elton John and Tim Rice have created a memorable and poignant score for the blockbuster musical Aida. This Bailiwick Chicago production is a voluptuous woman squeezed into a size eight. She could benefit from a little more room or trimming down but she’s still beautiful!

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

       
Photo-AidaRadames2 3773 PhotoArt-Aida

 

 

Three Four Words: Fanning himself with Egyptian style, Scott-dds describes the show as “powerful, memorable, extremely entertaining.”

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REVIEW: Hello Again (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

LaChuisa musical a sexy success for Boho

 

Adam Fane and Ben Burke 2 

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Hello Again
 
Written by Michael John LaChiusa
directed by Michael Ryzcek and Stephen Rader
Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

  I’m going to preface this review with a simple plea to all theater patrons: Please turn off your cell phones when you enter a theater. Nothing kills momentum like an iPhone going off at minute 85 of a 90 minute musical, so please just turn it off.

That being said, BoHo’s production of John Michael LaChiusa’s raunchy sex musical Hello Again can’t be stopped by pesky ringtones. The sexual exploits of ten characters are detailed in ten scenes that take place in a different decade of the 20th century, and LaChiusa adjusts the score to fit the period, creating a musical collage Tom McGunn and Adrianna Parson with styles ranging from opera to disco to bubblegum pop. Directors Michael Ryczek and Stephen Rader utilize the intimate (read: tiny) space exquisitely, navigating their ten actors without the stage ever seeming too crowded, a feat accomplished by making sure no one stays in one place for too long. The directors are aided by Stephen M. Genovese masterful set, which utilizes a wall of turning wooden panels to subtly suggest environments without requiring much room while also creating exits and entrances when needed.

The music begins and the company takes the stage with their best “come hither” looks, standing in silence before dissipating and leaving the audience with the patron saint of sexuality, Whore (Christina Hall). She greets wandering Soldier (Tom McGunn) with the show’s title number, setting off a series of erotic encounters that run the gamut of the sexual spectrum while retaining emotional intensity through LaChiusa’s revealing lyrics. As the characters get physical, the songs delve into their psyches, revealing the pains and pleasures of promiscuity but also the basic human need for affection, sexual or not.

The entire ensemble, musically directed by Nick Sula, has a great handle on the complicated score, but the women of the cast provide the most memorable performances. Bookending the production, Hall’s strong belt impresses, particularly considering the wide range of the opening number – but where she most excels is in capturing the character’s vulnerability, portraying a woman who lives a life of passion without intimacy. “Morally bankrupt” Young Wife (Erin Creighton) struggles to stay faithful to Husband (Kevin Bishop) as her sexual curiosity leads her into the arms of College Boy (Sean Knight), and Creighton switches between reluctance, glee, and regret as she becomes more engrossed in her torrid affair. Her song “Tom” is a highlight, a heartbreaking recount of a missed love connection at a restaurant that lingers on her mind while she has sex with Husband, and Creighton’s ability to sing in her higher register while remaining at a low volume makes the number all the more chilling.

Sean Knight and Adrianna Parson Tom McGunn and Christina Hall
Adam Fane and Ben Burke 1 Christina Hall and Robert Whorton 2

But when it comes to crazed unbridled sexuality, Nurse (Adrianna Parson) takes the cake. After being raped by Soldier, she transforms into a maniac that uses sex as a weapon. In the scene following with College Boy, she twists nipples and ties up wrists before stripping down and mounting her unsuspecting patient, singing mid-coitus, “Somebody took what was mine, I say that ain’t gonna do. I want a little bit, give me a little bit, I’m gonna steal a little bit of you.” The disturbing scene is made all the more effective by Parson’s fearlessness, and she turns in one of the raunchiest sex scenes I’ve seen on stage.

Actress (Heather Townsend) is the most technically spectacular of the bunch, and Townsend shows off her thunderous pipes with “Mistress of the Senator,” one woman’s frantic plea to keep her uninterested Senator (Robert Whorton) at her side. The song requires incredible diction and range, and Townsend shows fantastic control, attacking consonants to clarify the tongue twisting lyrics and breath control for miles.

Hello Again is a play about the needs we all share, sexual or emotional, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble’s production doesn’t hold itself back. The dedication of the actors to the material translates to raw excitement on the stage, and when the company says goodbye in a round of “Hello again,” get ready to reach for the nightstand because you’re gonna want a cigarette.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Christina Hall and Robert Whorton 1