Giuseppe Verdi might be rolling in his grave, but Disney's fizzy remake of Aida is nothing if not entertaining. The media giant that produced Broadway versions of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast has spun Verdi's tragedy into an upbeat, Vegas-like splash of a show complete with soda-pop music and laser-light special effects. But the story, about a Nubian princess and an Egyptian warrior who fall into doomed love, is surprisingly moving, even with the T-shirts and souvenir gewgaws hawked in the Hobby Center lobby at intermission.
The music and lyrics, by none other than Elton John and Tim Rice, respectively, are a mishmash of soft ballad, gospel and rock, none of which feels in the least bit Egyptian. But the soundtrack moves the simple story along, opening with the utterly Disneyesque "Every Story Is a Love Story." With this adolescent sentiment, we tumble back in time, from a museum full of golden artifacts to the world of Egypt. There we meet the dashing Egyptian Radames returning from a battle in war-torn Nubia.
Radames and his band of weary warriors are traveling up the Nile in dramatic style. Set designer Bob Crowley has sketched out an impressive ship with minimal lines. Enormous ruby-colored triangles float down from the rafters, suggesting the majestic sails of a powerful army. And these men saunter about with the confidence of conquerors.
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At the edge of the Nubian territory, they capture a clutch of young women. These lovely damsels become slaves to the soldiers. Of course, the soldiers don't realize they have enslaved the daughter of the king of Nubia, even though Aida carries her head held high with the pride of a princess.
As the title character, the regal Paulette Ivory fairly glides across the stage with otherworldly grace. Lithe and strong, with willowy long limbs and powerful hands that clutch at the air when she sings, she commands the stage whenever she appears. It's hard to imagine her as anything but royalty. And when she opens her mouth and her heart to sing, the enormous and gorgeously devastating sound of her voice can knock you to your plebian knees.
Looking very Nordic in his strawberry-blond beard and tousle of wheat-colored hair (he must hail from northern Egypt), Jeremy Kushnier makes a handsome co-star as Radames. And though his pop-sounding voice has less depth and power than Ivory's, the two make a surprisingly erotic couple, especially since this is the land of Disney we're talking about. The sexual chemistry between the two performers burns up the stage, especially in duets such as "Elaborate Lives." It is this romantic fire that makes their love story so compelling. They caress each other with such heat, they really do seem destined to be together.
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Of course, a love story isn't worth diddly without complications. Those come in the pretty shape of Amneris (Lisa Brescia), the Egyptian princess to whom Radames is betrothed. As the scorned blond bimbo, Brescia handles her job as mistress of comic relief with terrific timing. "My Strongest Suit," in which Amneris prattles on about her clothes, is very amusing. To a doo-woppy beat she sings, "I believe in looking / like my time on earth is cooking / whether polka-dotted, striped or even checked." Add in the strange fashion show at the end of the number, featuring brightly colored hats the size of small automobiles, and you've got a number fit for any Vegas stage. It's wonderful entertainment candy, even if it does seems strangely out of place on the Nile.
Amneris may be a bonehead, but she's not stupid. She knows something's up with Radames when he's not interested in meeting her in bed. She confides in Aida, who has become her slave, and the two discover they have a lot in common, though Amneris has no idea that she's speaking to another princess who knows exactly what it's like to have all that noble responsibility.
The love story is further complicated by the fact that Egypt and Nubia are at war. Oh, and Radames's dear old dad is a dirty rotten scoundrel who's trying to secretly poison Egypt's pharaoh. What are two lovers to do? In "Easy as Life," Aida wonders just that. In the showstopping moment, Aida realizes she must give up her love for her country. She claims with dark irony, "All I have to do is forget how much I love him / All I have to do is put my longing to one side / It's easy, it's easy as life." As Aida, Ivory stands in the middle of a dark stage in a spot of light and reaches down to the core of her soul to bring this anthem of longing and bittersweet love to vibrating life. It's a grand theatrical moment that will raise the hairs on your neck.
These sorts of moments make the Tony Award-winning Aida a musical worth seeing. But this show may not be right for opera lovers who can't bear to see their great tragedy turned into the pap of pop. Elton John and Tim Rice can't hold a candle in the wind to Verdi. But as razzmatazz entertainment goes, you won't do much better than this Disneyfied love story full of fabulous sets, fine performers and some great pop tunes.