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: Once on this Island (Marriott Theatre)

Refreshing as a cool summer breeze.

 

ISLAND- Full Cast

   
Marriott Theatre presents
   
Once on this Island
   
Book/Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by
Stephen Flaherty
Direction/Choreography by
David H. Bell
Musical Direction by
Ryan T. Nelson
at
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island is best when the entire ensemble is on stage. During these group numbers, Flaherty’s score is heavily influenced by the calypso and tribal music of the Caribbean, giving the show a distinct sound perfectly suited for the mystical subject matter. Ti Moune (Chasten Harmon) and Daniel (Brandon Koller) are two lovers from different worlds: the former an orphaned peasant, the latter a mixed-race aristocrat. After being seriously injured in a car accident, Daniel is found by a bewildered once-on-this-island Ti Moune, who prays to the Gods to give her  the power to nurse him back to health and win his heart.

Director-choreographer David H. Bell and his cast work wonders in the Marriott space, using props and movement to create the illusion of rain, birds, trees, and other island phenomena without the need for set dressing. This gives the ensemble ample room to move, a necessity for Bell’s intensely physical choreography, and makes the efforts of the actors to create a fully realized setting even more impressive. The problem with Once on this Island, though, is that these group sequences are much more interesting than the action involving the principals, slowing down the momentum of the production during those scenes.

Harmon captures Ti Moune’s youthful effervescence and naiveté well, but her vocals feel restricted, as if she is holding back her vibrato to keep better control over the notes. It makes the moments when her vibrato creeps in feel out of place, but also gives the feeling that each belt could be taken all that much further. Koller’s songs are fairly typical Broadway fare, but he doesn’t really have much to do until the second half of the show. There’s artificiality to his charm that gives Daniel a very ‘90s boy-band quality, and he takes on a bizarre dialect that sounds nothing like anyone else’s in the show and goes back and forth between French and an odd assortment of eastern European accents. The chemistry between the two finally clicks during the (surprise) group number “The Human Heart,” but it never reaches the emotional heights needed for the show’s climax.

Luckily, the rest of the cast picks up the slack.

Melody Betts’s incredible vocal instrument is used to its fullest as Asaka, God of Earth, her powerhouse belt combined with a motherly affection that gives each note beautiful emotional weight. Erzulie (Melinda Wakefield Alberty), God of Love, achieves the same effect with a gentler touch, maintaining strength but bringing a smoother groove, especially during the pitch perfect “Human Heart.” I’m a big fan of the HBO series Treme, and Nancy Missimi’s god costumes reminded me of the Indian chief garb donned by some of the show’s characters (albeit on a smaller scale), as seen here:

imageThe massive voice of Michael James Leslie, playing Ti Moune’s adopted father Tonton Julian, is almost too big for the Marriott space, but there’s a goofy bewilderment about his characterization that makes it fit, as if Tonton doesn’t realize how loud he really is. Along with Nya as Little Ti Moune, Leslie turns up the adorable factor for this production, creating the kind of good hearted character that you only see on stage.

When Once on this Island embraces its cultural heritage, whether it is in the calypso rhythms of the score or the tribal dance choreography, it is unforgettable. Ahrens’s book embraces the mystical beliefs of the native people, and the direction has an ethereal quality that reinforces the fable aspects of the narrative. Bell and his ensemble of actors transport the audience to an exotic world, and the music is richer when it taps into the vast cultural history of island music. The transformative powers of the creative team are magical in themselves, and a trip out to Lincolnshire is worth the illusion of a cool Caribbean breeze carrying the scent of mangos and the taste of saltwater.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
   

ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Brandon Koller as Daniel

ISLAND- Nya as Little Ti Moune Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune Joslyn Jones (Euralie) and Chaston Harmon (Ti Moune)
ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Melody Betts as Asaka once-on-this-island-2
       

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