Circle Players, Nashville' oldest community theater, opened its 2012-13 season last weekend with Elton John and Tim Rice's musical Aida, based on Verdi's opera.
For a show that won some big awards and had a lengthy Broadway run in the early 2000s, it is surprisingly disappointing — even Sir Elton's score. Often conjuring the church-chorded blue-eyed soul that distinguished his early pop compositions, the many numbers and their reprises are, with few exceptions, constructed with a maddening sameness from song to song. When John ventures further out stylistically, we get respectable fare such as "The Gods Love Nubia," a rousing Act 1 ensemble closer with tribal energy. But there's also a shamelessly cheesy Act 2 piece called "Like Father, Like Son," which elicited absolutely no applause last Saturday evening.
This Aida, we should remember, was originally conceived and recorded as a star-studded concept album, so the tunes sometimes come across as stand-alone vehicles that seem somewhat disconnected from character and motivation. That helps explain the show's papyrus-thin dramatic structure: The book came after the songs. Nevertheless, we have the right to expect more from veteran scriptwriters Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, who tell the story in the disappointingly slick, abbreviated style of a Disney cartoon. (Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise, since Disney originally produced the show onstage after shelving the idea for an animated movie version that might exploit the popularity of John and Rice's The Lion King.)
The play features an interesting gimmick — an opening scene in a museum where patrons view a display about ancient Egypt, then transform into the players enacting the tale. With a generally youthful cast — and a dearth of male actors — director Ralph Gabriel makes what he can out of the unfolding story of a romantic triangle involving two princesses (one of them a slave) and the soldier they both love.
LaToya Gardner, who has proven herself a solid actress and singer for Circle and other companies, does well in the title role. As her romantic rival Amneris, Lisa Graham has plenty of positive moments, too. Kevin Dale Mead plays Radames, the military man courting both ladies. Mead fared better recently at Boiler Room Theatre in a cameo role in Next to Normal. Here, his inexperience is more exposed. He has talent, and he sings capably most of the time, but in a style that sounds like he's auditioning for American Idol instead of interpreting a character.
So while the show's three leads at least provide some entertainment — albeit erratic — there are also glaring shortcomings, especially regarding the younger players. For example, some of the dancing has all the precision of a grammar-school talent contest, and one number set in Pharaoh's banquet hall re-creates a runway-style fashion show, which makes little sense except as a campy diversion that provides an excuse for the ladies to strut their stuff.
Interestingly, since the production uses prerecorded tracks as accompaniment, we get to sample the full force of the excellent musical arrangements, credited to Guy Babylon and Paul Bogaev. Yet this approach also lends itself to a canned feel.
The costumes and movable set pieces are a group effort in design and construction, occasionally hitting close to the mark of historical exoticism but usually merely serviceable.
Circle's John/Rice Aida is the first indigenous local mounting, and as such it may intrigue curious theatergoers. Be forewarned: While there are a few performance baubles within, there's also a fair amount of tomblike tedium.
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