Theater Latte Da and the Hennepin Theatre Trust have teamed up to co-produce a Broadway hit this month at the historic Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. “Aida” tells the story of an Egyptian army captain, Radames, who falls in love with a captured Nubian princess, Aida. He is betrothed to Amneris, the Egyptian princess, soon to be queen. Issues arise when Aida arrives and Radames falls in love with her. It is a heart wrenching story with music composed by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice.
My history with “Aida” goes back many years. My family and I saw the original Broadway cast in 2000 starring Heather Headley, Sherie Rene Scott and Adam Pascal. It was nominated for five Tony Awards and won four including Best Original Musical Score. My sophomore year of college a family friend heard that the local radio station was having people come in to sing live because “American Idol” auditions were coming to town. Although I did not try out for the tv show, I did sing on the radio. My song choice was “My Strongest Suit”. When I told the hosts I was singing an Elton John song they were intrigued. When I started singing from a musical they were baffled. A few years later my sister played Amneris in a local theater company. It was her first lead role and she was superb. You can only imagine how many times I have listened to the soundtrack since 2000. Needless to say, because of my past history I went in with very high expectations.
Something I love to do when seeing shows is pick up on the little treasures that lie within it: moments when I am transported into the show, incredible acting choices, beautiful pieces of music, and tiny little gestures or phrases that pop out. In the Playbill section “letter from the director” Peter Rothstein says “The theater is a two-way street; it is only complete when the audience meets you halfway.” There were a few points in the show where that rang true for me.
During “My Strongest Suit” Cat Brindisi who played Amneris shined. Her quaint giggle, huge smile and sparkle in her eyes were a dead give away that she was doing what she loved to do, act. It was absolutely lovely to see. Jared Oxborough played Radames. There was one line during the song “Enchantment Passing Through” where I had to contain myself from leaping out of my seat and saying “yes!”. The notes on “will forget” in the phrase “And why did I tell her this? A stranger I’ve just met. A woman who I hardly know at all and will forget.” were exactly spot on and sounded superb. When Aida, played by Austene Van, sang with the rest of her Nubian country men and women, it was lovely. She had a powerful sense of confidence about her which is exactly the way Aida should be. The choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell allowed the choral numbers to come alive. Their hand gestures on the word “Aida” were beautifully crafted and everyone moved fluidly together. Mix in beautiful lyrics and strong voices and it was a sight to see.
My favorite actor in the show may come as a surprise. He was not one of the three leads but an incredible supporting actor, Ben Bakken. He played Zoser, Radames father, and was also in the chorus. Ben had all the elements I want to see in a superb performer. He acted well, sang incredibly, could dance, and his emotions were genuine. No wonder he played Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in 2011 and won an Ivey Award. I only wish I could have seen him in it! During “The Gods Love Nubia” you could see his entire body moving with passion to the sounds and he completely embodied the character. Bravo, Ben!
“Aida” had two settings. The beginning and end of the show take place in an art museum, present day. The rest of the show takes place in ancient Egypt. However, there were times I was confused where I was. The two other stage versions I have seen have held traditionally to the settings, present and past. Director Peter Rothstein re-created the piece and added his own flavor. During “ancient times” some of the characters wore ancient clothing, yet others didn’t. Some wore jeans, sunglasses, even Converse shoes. In Amneris’ gut wrenching song “I Know The Truth” she starts off with a short khaki trench coat and ends in traditional Egyptian clothing. Her maids place her in an Egyptian gown with bangles and a head piece. Another new aspect was the rock concert vibe. The band was on the stage which allowed the audience to see exactly what was being played and gave the actors a chance to somewhat engage with the musicians. There were times when stand alone microphones were placed on stage and the actors sang as if it were a solo concert piece.
Truthfully, I struggled sleeping after the show. I was taken aback by some of the bold choices. Again, I have only seen it traditionally done so I am still trying to wrap my mind around why some aspects were changed. I believe in the questioning process of theater. Pieces should cause you to walk away wondering and picking it apart to see what you loved, what frustrated you, what was unclear, and so forth.
To those who have not seen the show, I can assure you it is a beautiful piece of art. The music is top notch and the band led by Jason Hansen gave the notes on the page a heartbeat. At the end of the show there was a standing ovation and much support for the local actors. “Aida” is playing now through January 27th. For further information contact the Hennepin Theatre Trust:
Mon-Fri, 10am – 5pm
* Student rush tickets are available. Check the website for details.