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.