Thursday, October 25, 2001


While standing ovations have become the norm in this country for just about everything, it is rare that an audience rises to its feet as one body before the performers have even had a chance to come out on stage for their bows.

Such was the situation with Wednesday night's opening of Elton John and Tim Rice's Tony award winning musical, "Aida" at the Sacramento Community Center, as part of the first official national touring company. Seldom has such an ovation been more deserved.

With a uniformly excellent cast, it's difficult to know exactly where to begin, but it seems appropriate to begin with the visuals. The scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley and particularly the lighting design by Natasha Katz had a real starring role in this production. The vivid primary colored backdrops, the minimal but effective sets, an amazing sailing ship, and the incredible lighting effects for everything from a standout solo by Aida, bathed in a dozen spotlights, to inventive use of laser lighting and one special effect at the end, which I will not spoil by revealing here. Even if the cast had been mediocre, the show would be worth seeing for the stage design alone.

Fortunately, however, the cast is anything but mediocre.

Giuseppe Verdi it ain't, and those expecting a "Grand March" may be disappointed, but Elton John and Tim Rice have faithfully retold the well-known story (adding a new character, Mereb, Radames' Nubian servant, for what seems to be occasional comic effect). This is the classic love triangle of an Egyptian princess, Amneris, the captured Nubian princess, Aida, who has become her slave, and the noble Egyptian soldier, Radames, whom both women love.

As Aida, Simone (daughter of world-renowned singer, Nina Simone) is sheer perfection. She was firey as the princess who finds herself captured and treaded as a slave, tender in her love scenes with Radames, and an absolute knockout in her solos. The Act 1 finale, "The Gods Love Nubia," Aida's promise to her enslaved people that Nubia will never die, leaves the audience breathless.

An equal match for Simone is Patrick Cassidy (the youngest son son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy and brother of Shaun and David Cassidy) as Radames, who gives a powerful performance as the reluctant Pharoah-to-be, torn between his duty to marry a woman he does not love for political reasons, and his growing love for Aida.

Kelli Fournier as Amneris, acted both as narrator and as participant in the action. She's a princess interested only in clothes and fashion ("My Strongest Suit"), but acquires more queenly virtues as the play progresses. (Both Simone and Fournier are from the Broadway company of "Aida.")

An outstanding trio, both vocally and visually was "A Step Too Far," which opens the second act with the three principal characters describing how they find themselves entangled in conflicted loyalties and emotions.

Neal Bernari injected an incredible amount of power into his role as Zoser, Radames' father. He took command of the stage whenever he stepped into a scene.

Substituting in the role of Mereb, Tim Hunter gave a memorable performance as the Nubian slave who delivers Aida from the slave ship to the palace, and suddenly recognizes her as his princess ("How I know you"). He takes her to the Nubian camp, where her people plead with her to lead them.

It is also Mereb who guides Aida to the prison cell of her father Amonasro (Jerald Vincent), captured by Radames' army. Together the three plan an escape for Amonasro during the wedding of Radames and Amneris. To save her father and nation, Aida must betray the man she loves ("Easy As Life").

Amneris overhears a conversation between Radames and Aida, and discovers their affair, and that her upcoming marriage is a sham. Aida attempts to flee to Nubia with her father, there is a tragic end for the star-crossed lovers, but in this Disney-produced version of the story, there is also hope for future happiness.

Choreographer Wayne Cilento paints beautiful visual portraits with his dancers. Of particular note is a number featuring warriors dancing with bows and arrows, silhouetted against a red backdrop.

Robert Falls has directed a stunning, seamless production with a strong cast which will not disappoint any audience. You may not exactly go out humming the score, but you certainly will remember the look of this sumptuous production for a long time.