Simplified ‘Aida’ is a revelation

By Milan Paurich

Stripped of its bells and whistles, the musical makes a strong impact.

Although Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” played for 1,852 performances on Broadway and launched a national tour and several international productions, it was never much of a critical darling. Reviewers blasted “Aida” for being a bubblegum vulgarization of the same-named Giuseppe Verdi opera that inspired it, and lumped it in with theme-park musicals such as “Phantom of the Opera,” “Starlight Express” and “Cats,” where spectacle trumps substance. And the fact that “Aida” was produced by a theatrical unit of the Walt Disney corporation didn’t help its cred with snooty critics, either.

Well, a funny thing happened to “Aida” on its way to the Fairview Arts and Outreach Center, where it opened Friday night. Under the auspices of Top Hat Productions, the musical has found its soul. Top Hat’s stripped-down, minimalist re-imagining of “Aida” wisely dispenses with the glitz, slickness and self-defeating irony that stuck in the craw of New York intelligentsia. The result is a revelatory interpretation of a show that’s a lot better than its reputation might suggest.

By eliminating the distracting theme-park elements (grandiose sets, costumes and special effects), Top Hat’s “Aida” wisely focuses on what really matters: John and Rice’s lush pop score, gorgeously sung by some of the finest vocalists in the area, and a love story with timeless appeal. You don’t need budget-busting production values if you’ve got actor/singers like Top Hat veterans Rachell Joy and Brian and Julie Palumbo to help sell your material.

Bookended by present-day scenes in the Egyptian wing of an art museum where a life-size statue of Pharaoh Amneris (Julie Palumbo) comes to life, “Aida” tells a “Romeo and Juliet”-like love story set against the exotic backdrop of ancient Egypt. Young army captain Radames (Brian Palumbo) falls in love with one of the slaves (Joy as Aida) captured by his soldiers during a recent military campaign in Nubia. Complicating matters for the star-crossed lovers is the fact that Radames’ ambitious, duplicitous father Zoser (a steely-eyed Robert Noble) has promised his hand in marriage to Princess Amneris — and that they are to be wed in seven days.

Things come to a dramatic head after the Egyptian army captures Aida’s father, Nubian king Amonasro (Johnny R. Herbert). A perilous escape, an interrupted wedding and several tragic deaths occur before the closing curtain. Director Brian Palumbo somehow manages to keep the convoluted story explicable and accessible. The fact that Palumbo has a dream cast only makes his job that much easier.

Joy is such a magnetic, riveting stage presence that you’re instantly drawn to her. And when she opens her mouth to sing, you can practically hear angels weeping. “The Gods Love Nubia,” Joy’s Act One closer, has a revival meeting fervor that sends chills down your spine. I doubt whether I’ll see a more impressive or impassioned musical performance all season. (YACTA nominating committee take note.) Julie Palumbo does wonders with “My Strongest Suit,” a novelty production number that’s usually played for campy laughs. Because the gifted Palumbo is somehow able to get under the skin of clotheshorse Amneris, we see the humanity and fragility of her pampered princess. Brian Palumbo casts a suitably dashing figure as the heroic Radames and — no surprise to his legion of area fans — sings the role beautifully. Also very good is the vocally adroit Angel Samuel Febres, who makes Mereb endearing and touching.

Singling out individual performances from the ensemble of soldiers and slaves is difficult since no one really makes a false move. But I would be remiss if I failed to mention the invaluable contributions of Nikita R. Jones, Ja’Neice Murray and the estimable Cheney Morgan. Of course, 18-year-old YSU student Morgan — coming off his recent triumph at the New Castle Playhouse as the Gentleman Caller in a pitch-perfect production of “The Glass Menagerie” — is pretty tough to ignore under any circumstances.

Still, Palumbo and his Top Hat company are to be commended for bringing a chamber piece feel to an elephantine musical better known for bells and whistles than subtlety or intimacy.

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