I don't mind a big, flashy musical. I don't mind Tim Rice (who has crafted some clever lyrics in his day), and I don't mind Elton John. But after seeing Aida last night at Overture Hall, I might hold a grudge. Their pop-ballad-laden take on the opera crosses over the border of camp and arrives on the shores of schlock. This is a case of my hating the game and not the players, as the talented cast is certainly not at fault. (The costumer and set designers, however, share some of the blame.)
Radames (Casey Elliot), a captain in the Egyptian army, is pillaging and plundering Nubia with his men. These men are dressed in costumes culled from Madonna's "Express Yourself" video -- lots of long billowy coats worn over bare chests. Elliot, who has good looks and a good voice, is so buff that at one point the woman behind me swooned "oh yesssss."
Nubian princess Aida (Marja Harmon, with a big, clear voice) is captured while sporting a dress left over from Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield" video. Aida is strong-willed and sassy and makes quite an impression on Radames, who gives her as a gift to his fiancÃe, the Egyptian princess Amneris (Leah Allers). Amneris sometimes seems like she is in an entirely different show because she is called upon to provide comic relief. Granted, comic relief is needed at times, but it is such a contrast to the rest of the show that it seems incongruous. Allers has a smooth, rich voice but has to sing the silly song "My Strongest Suit," which features a bizarre fashion show and rolling racks of shoes.
Meanwhile evil Zoser (DJ Rudd) and the other ministers (all sporting costumes from Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" video, with ridiculous pleated skirts circling half of their waists over boxy black suits) are slowly poisoning the Pharaoh (Michael Johnson) and plotting a coup. You won't be surprised to learn that a love triangle between Amneris, Radames and Aida develops, and that the other Nubian slaves beg Aida to once again be their princess. Torn between their countries and their love, the doomed Aida and Radames make noble choices and sacrifices.
I know there have been some over-the-top productions of the opera Aida, with live elephants and casts of hundreds, so I guess in comparison this production is relatively restrained. The set is fairly bare but manages to feel cramped once the large pedestals with Egyptian art get shoved around and the stage fills up with dancers. Colors saturate the stage to give us too obvious emotional clues, like red = danger and anger.
There are some lovely moments, which tend to be more spare and simple. As we are ushered into Amneris' chambers, dancers wearing sheer full skirts over gold unitards swirl with sinewy extensions while holding candles in their hands. In another visually striking moment, female slaves form gorgeous silhouettes against a stark blue background on the balcony while carrying buckets on their heads as they prepare to clean the palace. Amneris' genuinely beautiful "I Know the Truth" almost made me forget my complaints with the schmaltzy score and stilted dialogue.