Disney keeps ‘Aida’ on drawing board

Chi critics sound off on Elton John/Tim Rice tuner

CHICAGO — Shortly after “Aida” opened to critical brickbats in Atlanta last year, the Walt Disney Theatricals honchos axed much of the show’s creative team with a dispatch worthy of an Egyptian pharaoh.

Although the critical response to the latest incarnation of the Elton John/Tim Rice tuner was from mixed to negative after last week’s Chicago opening, this time the top brass is gritting its teeth, heading back into rehearsal and sticking to their guns.

“We’ve always felt that our opening night would be March 23 in New York,” said Peter Schneider, prexy of Disney Studios and co-prexy of Walt Disney Theatricals. “We learned things from Atlanta and now we have learned things from Chicago. The response has not been alarming or upsetting. Our work is not yet done, and the entire creative team is energized. And the company is completely behind us.”

Despite the presence of favorite son Robert Falls at the helm, most of the major Chi critics thought the show suffered from a stylistic split personality. Although star Heather Headley received universal praise and Bob Crowley’s settings were also widely admired, Windy City scribes variously attacked the “Borscht Belt” elements of the book (especially the anachronistic comic act one fashion show), elements of John’s score and Wayne Cilento’s choreography, described in the Chicago Tribune as a mix of “aerobics cut and thrust” and “harem wiggling.”

“How is it possible,” asked Tribune critic Richard Christiansen, “for a musical to be so beautiful and so vulgar, to have such spectacular scenes and be such a mess?”

“There are two very different musicals on stage right now,” said Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times. “And every time you believe in the stronger of the two, the weaker one does something to undermine it.”

The most positive major review came from the Atlanta Constitution and Journal critic Dan Hulbert, who argued that the show had vastly improved since Atlanta and crediting Falls with turning “Aida” around.

So what’s going to happen now? After the show closes in Chicago on Jan. 9, there are fewer than two months before the first preview in New York. Still, Schneider said that Falls, Rice and John would all be getting together soon “in London or wherever Elton might be.” (He has a New Year’s gig in Las Vegas.)

“Elton writes very fast,” Schneider said. “Speed has never been a problem for him.”

The exec refused to be specific about the new plan of attack, but a source said John is working on at least two new numbers and that both book and choreography are in for a further overhaul.

Cast members (who’ve been through a constant succession of changes) have been told that the show is frozen until further notice, but Schneider said that changes might well be introduced even before the end of Chicago run. Following the Chi close, the cast will take three weeks off and then go back into rehearsal in New York on Feb. 1.

Since critics liked the more serious elements of the show far more than the more cartoonish characters left over from Atlanta, it seems reasonable to assume that things will proceed in that direction. There were also rumors during the preview performances that there was some unhappiness with Adam Pascal, but Schneider said that there was “definitely no intention to replace anybody.”

On opening night, Rice could be overheard in the theater telling people that he had plenty of changes in the works. And although a source said the typically upbeat Falls was “very disappointed” by the local critical response, he is said to be ready to go back to work.

Since the cost of “Aida” is still hardly a blip on the overall Disney financial radar, there’s likely to be money for whatever the creatives want to do to get things right. Although sections of the audience have given performances a standing ovation on most nights in Chicago, the show is hardly a sellout despite considerable local media hoopla after the starry opening. Grosses have not been reported to Daily Variety.

There’s a new logo and marketing campaign for Gotham (the name Disney does not appear prominently in the ads). Schneider said the show is “selling well” in New York and the lack of the prominent corporate moniker is merely an attempt not to confuse the consumer by any suggestion that this is a show for kids.

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