Critics whose beat is Broadway were not kind to “Aida,” the Giuseppe Verdi/Antonio Ghislanzoni 19th-century opera-turned-Elton John/Tim Rice pop musical, when the show opened in 2000.
The least subtle but most representative commentary came from The New York Times, which was none-too-pleased with this Disney-produced re-telling of an enslaved Nubian princess who falls in love with a conquering Egyptian captain named Radames, who is betrothed to Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter.
“The new Disney cartoon pretending to be a Broadway musical,” it states, “seems stranded in its own candy-colored limbo, thrashing between childish silliness and civic preachiness, between campy spoof and tragic tear-jerker, between two and three dimensions.”
It goes on to note that Elton John’s score “has all the memory-grabbing adhesiveness of unchewed gum” and that the show’s “more exalted sentiments, about destiny and duty, are reserved for Mr. Rice's rather perfunctory lyrics.”
And yet, “Aida” earned four Tony Awards and played to packed houses for 1,852 performances across 54 months. What audiences discovered and critics missed is on display in the absolutely lovely production being performed at Karamu House.
As did the Broadway production, the current showing found a most remarkable talent to take on the title role. Karamu’s Mary-Francis R. Miller imbues Aida with a stirring combination of vulnerability and uncompromising sense of purpose that reveals the sometimes elusive heart in the story and allows her and the performers around her to rise above the script’s shortcomings.
She also possesses a voice with stunning emotional variety, spot-on precision and immense conviction that takes the musical’s best material and lifts it to new and unexpected levels. Her rendition of “Easy as Life,” sung after Aida is confronted about her feelings for Radames by her captured father (an overzealous Prophet D. Seay), is breathtaking.
And the songs Miller shares with the talented Darelle Hill as Radames, Joshua McElroy as Radames’ servant sidekick Mereb, and Sidney Edwards as Amneris – the gorgeously rendered “Written in the Stars,” “How I Know You” and “A Step Too Far,” respectively – are proof positive that the whole is greater than the sum of even exceptional parts. This is also true for the gospel-inspired “The Gods Love Nubia,” which is sung by Aida and an ensemble of fellow homesick and heartbroken Nubians. So good was this act one-ending number that it earned a standing ovation on opening night.
The sizable ensemble, under Tony Sias’ direction, plays a significant role in the storytelling by providing rich and powerful harmonies, executing with confidence Treva Offutt’s stunning choreography, and delivering well-disciplined performances in the background. When given an opportunity to showcase their skills – such as when Jameelah Rahman, Kailyn Mack and Khemi Salahuddin perform an effectively seductive dance upon the entrance of the Pharaoh (Grant Walker) and his Chief Minister (Shakka Hasberry) – they shine.
Designers Inda Blatch-Geib (scenic and costume), Colleen Albrecht (lighting) and T. Paul Lowry (projection) avoid the temptation to replicate the “candy-colored” and “campy” staging called out in the Broadway production with the new technical bells and whistles installed in the just-renovated Jelliffe Theatre space. Instead, everything is understated but sufficiently dramatic, visually appealing and in line with Sias’ artistic vision.
The only hiccups are the time delays created during scene changes, which are likely to improve with the run of the show, and Jeremy E. Dobbins’ sound design and Ron Calhoun’s engineering of it, which must improve immediately. Missed cues and the imbalanced mixing of on-stage vocals with music director David M. Thomas’ wonderful off-stage orchestra frequently obscure one or the other.
When corrected, the folks at The Times should visit this “Aida” to see what they missed the first time around and experience what Karamu brings to the table.