through June 29 | The Venue, 511 Virginia Drive | 540-241-5609 | clandestineorlando.com | $20
When Aida opened in New York in 2000, the Elton John and Tim Rice adaptation of Verdi’s opera was considered somewhat of a disappointment compared to previous Disney Broadway blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Sure, it picked up a handful of Tony awards and ran for several years, but when I saw it in 2003 with Adam Pascal and Simone in the leads, the only elements that made much impact were Bob Crowley’s flashy scenic and costume designs. Now, more than a decade later, director-producer Derek Critzer’s Clandestine-Arts has prompted me to revisit my ambivalent appraisal, thanks mainly to his production’s impressively full-throated rendering of Aida’s slim score.
Aida, with its Romeo and Juliet-in-North Africa setup, depicts the doomed love triangle between Egyptian military captain Radames (Tony Flaherty), his pampered-princess fiancée, Amneris (Emily Grainger), and Aida (LaDawn Taylor), the enslaved daughter of the Nubian king. There are few surprises in the time-worn plot, leaving it up to the vocal prowess of the leads and the chorus to propel the action through Sir Elton’s poperatic power ballads. Luckily, each of the central trio in this production has powerful pipes, led by the comely and commanding Taylor as her people’s proud yet reluctant (if not quite angry enough) avatar. Grainger did a swinging job singing the showstopper, “My Strongest Suit,” despite microphone mishaps and some unfortunate costumes. Though her Amneris appears at first to be an airhead out of a ’90s teen flick, her delivery of 11th-hour soliloquy “I Know the Truth” infused the character with needed depth. As the man torn between them, Flaherty sounds fine belting boy-band-worthy tunes. But while I enjoyed his recent bad-boy turn in Bare: A Pop Opera at Fringe, here he’s more milquetoast Disney hero than macho martial master.
Critzer’s ambitious earlier mountings of Rent and Sweeney Todd overwhelmed their venues with outsized sets, but here he’s slimmed down to a nearly bare stage with projected backdrops. Perhaps he’s gone a little too minimalist; aside from a couple of isolated energetic dance breaks, the book and musical moments alike are mostly static, with many scenes staged concert-style as nearly motionless tableaux. Critzer also lops off the original museum-based framing prologue, substituting a Times Square-set pantomime pre-show whose connection to the main action remains ambiguous, and fails to elucidate important plot points like Radames’ father’s poisoning of the Pharaoh. (The book appears to be based on the original Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls script, dispensing with the darker details from David Henry Hwang’s later revision.) Most damagingly, Flaherty lacks any sexual chemistry with either of his co-stars, making the breakout love duet “Elaborate Lives” seem less an amorous declaration than an ode to exhausted acquiescence.
One area that certainly wasn’t skimped on is the orchestrations. Performing under the direction of conductor Don Hopkinson, the astounding eight-piece pit band sounded fuller than some Equity tours I’ve seen recently. Combined with a powerhouse chorus directed by Colton Brooks, Aida blows the doors off the Venue, sounding a bit like an arena concert squeezed into someone's garage. Though often overwhelming the show's shallow emotional content, the sonic result renders this reprise-ridden marginal musical with more dedication (and decibels) than it probably deserves.