Review of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida at Stages St. Louis

    The story of the captive Nubian princess Aida and her love triangle with the Egyptian noble army commander Radames and the Egyptian princess Amneris has inspired two stage versions, the grand opera in the height of 19th century romanticism by Giuseppe Verdi, and a Broadway musical. The musical’s composer, Elton John, has been since the 1960s one of the very brightest pop music stars, topping the charts as both performer and composer in everything from glam rock to Tony-winning Broadway musicals. The Aida score covers segments of that territory. I’m not a big fan of either the territory or of John, but I do admire the aria he gives Aida in the second act, and I always enjoy hearing The Lion King every time I see it. Aida’s lyrics, as the title makes clear, were written by Tim Rice, best known for his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, an even bigger success on the musical stage than John, so far. Experienced Broadway playwrights Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang make the story more comfortable on the 21st century musical stage than the 19th century operatic version is in the 21st century.

    The current staging of the musical at Stages St. Louis elicited the comment that perhaps its time in the Old Kingdom, 4500 years ago – a long time ago – might have matched the time of this kingdom far, far away with a kingdom a long time ago in another galaxy far, far away, and that perhaps Luke Skywalker had managed to visit this ancient land and introduce the Egyptians to the lightsaber.Tubes of light are everywhere on the stage. Some the Egyptian army has shaped into bows to launch their arrows at the enemy; these bows glow red. So do many of the other light tubes, longer ones that the army can use as cudgels in battle, and even longer ones that can be joined at one end to make a pyramid – this is Egypt, after all, in the age of the pyramids. A small pyramid, inserted in a larger one, even becomes the cell in which Aida and Radames are imprisoned.

    Director and choreographer Luis Salgado, scenic designer Kate Rance, and lighting designer Herrick Goldman make these few elements, with platforms to elevate the royal court, work quite well for the staging, though the light tubes could be a little distracting at times, especially when they change color, though that could also reinforce the mood.

    Brad Musgrove gave the slaves plain and dull-colored costumes and the opposite for the nobility and royalty, though as a general, Radames does not get a fancy uniform. His soldiers, however, assemble proudly in brief leather vests that display a lot of well-toned chests. Princess Amneris creates a little fashion show as she selects her outfit for the royal court.

    Splendid sounds come from the cast and the orchestra under music director and conductor Erika R. Gamez. Beef Gratz designed the sound and Khadijah Amirah designed wigs and hair. Talia Krispel is the production stage manager and Tavia Rivee Jefferson is the cultural coordinator and intimacy director.

    Wonu Ogunfowora makes a powerful Aida, singing and acting, intelligent and clever, finding her way as a slave and as a woman in love. Ace Young plays Radames’ triumphs and troubles as his sudden love for Aida throws him into conflicts with his father, his king and his fiancee. Ryan Williams is that father Zoser, ambitious, rigid, determined, showing no warmth to his son. David Benoit’s Pharaoh is a majestic figure, almost more a figurehead than a ruler, in his illness yielding to his daughter. Diana DeGarmo plays Princess Amneris as the ultimate spoiled, self-indulgent, self-involved, fashion-mad teenager who, through a friendship with her slave Aida, somehow becomes a mature, selfless, and wise ruler with her final decision. Albert Jennings plays the attractive Mereb, a Nubian slave in the Egyptian court still loyal to his homeland and doing what he can for the Nubians when he recognizes Aida as the princess. Equally noble is Jenny Mollet’s Nehebka, a young Nubian now enslaved who sacrifices her life to save Aida in an incomplete “I am Spartacus“ moment. As the captured Nubian king Amonasro, Jerome Harmann Hardeman has a rock-like dignity and firm command. The large supporting chorus give splendid support throughout.

    Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida ran for over four years on Broadway and continues to fill theatres around the world. So if I have second thoughts about it, I am clearly in the minority. Stages gives it a fine and moving production. I was especially intrigued by the use of the light tubes.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
    Diana DeGarmo as Amneris in her bridal gown in
    Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida.