Odd, because if any piece of material truly justifies the elephantine approach to musical theater, it's Aida. After all, elephants--as well as camels and who-knows-what-all--have quite frequently been a crucial part of the prop list for the Giuseppe Verdi/Antonio Ghislanzoni opera that, according to the program, "suggested" this new work. Remember, Verdi's Aida was commissioned in 1869 by the khedive of Egypt to mark the Suez Canal opening. It didn't, because the composer wasn't happy with the libretto and kept stalling. But when the 1871 premiere finally came, there were 300 people on stage, and the audience was full of dignitaries from here, there and everywhere (not to mention the khedive's entire harem).
Another fascinating fact of that flashy opening is that Verdi didn't attend. The reason for his absence, he wrote, was that "the sentiment produced in me is one of disgust and humiliation...[this Aida] was no longer art, but a trade, a pleasure party, a hunt." Isn't it curious that, 129 years later, Elton John stormed out of a preview of his own Aida with some of the same concerns? John's publicized exit, however, and the basic storyline are all that the new piece shares with the old. And therein lies the problem. For the Disney folks, producing the show under their Hyperion Theatricals umbrella, have shrunk Aida into something weirdly underpopulated and underdone--not because there's any indication that they thought an "intimate" musical was the direction in which to go to differentiate fresh from familiar, but because they don't seem to know what they had in mind, other than to extend their roster of Broadway moneymakers (Beauty and the Beast and the incomparable Lion King) with another saleable title. Maybe they also had some nebulous notions about slavery and how its aftermath still obtains today, a point that ultimately isn't made here.
The basic plot of Aida remains essentially the same as it's been, although it bears retelling, since many folks out there may realize that an opera called Aida exists but have never seen or heard it. (Adam Pascal, star of the new version, has admitted that he's one of the culturally deprived.) Prince Radames, a war hero, is engaged to Princess Amneris, but when he captures Aida--also a princess, but reluctant to say so--and brings her back to Egypt from his exploits in Nubia, he finds himself falling in love with her. Eventually, Aida is smitten with Radames, too. This condition is known these days as Stockholm Syndrome--kinda like when Patty Hearst fell for her Symbionese Liberation Army captor.
Complications ensue at court, because the Pharaoh would like to see Radames and Amneris wed (they've been engaged for nine years). Radames' dad, Zoser, is also plugging for the nuptials: He's been slowly poisoning the Pharaoh so that he and his son can take over the kingdom. Aida, meanwhile, finds her attraction to Radames getting in the way of her desire to help ease the oppression of her people. As time passes, little goes right, for the lovers are found out and are condemned to die.
Brought into the mix after the musical's Atlanta bow hit some snags last year, director Robert Falls has apparently had a more positive reaction to the score. In a Playbill interview, he tells Michael Lassell that when the John-Rice songs were played for him as an enticement to come on board, he "was surprised and deeply moved" by their "passion and depth." If so, he hasn't helped much to emphasize that passion, that depth, or any kind of scope. The wedding of Radames and Amneris, for instance, is attended by less than a dozen people, although neither of the characters ever mentions wanting a ceremony for just the immediate family. Shouldn't a director faced with budget limitations (in a Disney musical?) have come up with better solutions? Or shouldn't the writers, Falls and David Henry Hwang (working from a previous pass by Linda Woolverton), have worked something out? Incidentally, a good guess might be that the framing device of the musical--it begins and ends with the principals wandering around what looks like the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian Halls--was Hwang's contribution; he book-ended his play Golden Child similarly to comment on how the past affects and infuses the present.
Falls, whose last three Broadway outings were the overrated Death of a Salesman, the benumbed Young Man From Atlanta, and the misconceived Night of the Iguana, had his work clearly cut out for him, since most of the players seem to have been chosen for their voices--notably Adam Pascal, who sure can sing but sure can't act, and John Hickok, who plays Zoser as if channeling Terence Stamp on a cantankerous day. Most of the men in the cast stomp and declaim--even the supposedly ailing Pharaoh (Daniel Oreskes)--and seem hopelessly bombastic.
Which leads to the two women in this three-way love affair. (At one point, laser beams form an equilateral triangle into which the mismatched ménage meanders.) As Amneris, Sherie René Scott gets to do the show's comedy nod, a lively-enough ditty called "My Strongest Suit." It's about how clothes make the woman, and it comes with a parade of quasi-Egyptian outfits. (The great Bob Crowley, on cruise-control, did the sets and costumes.) In this clothes-horse song, Amneris declares it's not the inner self that interests her, but what's on the exterior, and Scott performs the number with the kind of ditzy flare that made the late Madeline Kahn so good. After the number, Amneris remains remarkably dense but turns introspective and sensitive to the needs of others, robbing Scott of any more opportunity to be playful.
Heather Headley, in the musical's title role, has a different burden--one she bears with dignity and oomph for as long as she can. Asked to provide Aida (and Aida) with meaning and purpose, she gives her gallant best. Elongated and elegant as an African carving, she may remind dance fans of Judith Jamison at her most regal. When she smiles, she bares a wall of teeth, and the sun shines. Again and again, when Aida is moved to anger and determination, Headley lifts her arms as if they were wings ready to shelter entire nations. The colors she shows are intense and riveting; but, unfortunately, the Aida the writers ask her to portray isn't given many other hues. By the middle of the second act, when she's called on to bend her long neck and wail yet another high note and then another, she dulls out.
Still, as one departing ticket-buyer said of Headley, "She was worth the entire admission price." Very little else justifies the expenditure.