You could say that some Egyptian deity or other has smiled on Disney, but that would be to discount the hard work – and the loads of money – that have gone into the striking transformation of the Elton John-Tim Rice musical “Aida” since its world premiere a year and a half ago in Atlanta. In its new, vastly improved incarnation, “Aida” is still not a Broadway musical for the ages – it’s not even a Broadway musical for all ages – but it has been transformed from a garish misfire into an extravagantly pretty pop fantasy that’s aimed carefully – and cannily – at teenyboppers and teenyboppers-at-heart. The show will delight the kids who swoon over “Dawson’s Creek” and spend millions on Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera records. With an advance of $15 million, it will be packing them in for some time to come.
Credit must be given to Hyperion Theatricals toppers Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher for making the tough decision to jettison much of the creative team behind the show’s unfortunate debut production at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater Co. Credit them, too, for the new, smartly chosen team of director Robert Falls, designer Bob Crowley and book doctor David Henry Hwang.
Together they’ve scraped away much of the show’s tacky, snicker-inducing, pseudo-historical trappings, refashioning it as a jelly bean-colored dream that puts an unabashedly contemporary spin on the fabled story about a love triangle in ancient Egypt. “Aida” now features a prologue and coda set in a sleek art museum that might have been renovated by Ian Schrager, where stars Heather Headley and Adam Pascal flirt wordlessly in front of a big, mysterious oxidized metal box. From here we’re swept back to the land of the Pharaohs, where Headley plays the enslaved Nubian princess Aida and Pascal is the Egyptian warrior Radames who’s captured her.
Oh, but not really – this is just the bright, historically inaccurate daydream of the period that might pass through the minds of the kids in the museum as they stare at those neat ankhs and amulets. Crowley’s gorgeous sets and costumes are very current-looking riffs on pan-Asian themes in Day Glo colors, and they carefully play down the Egytian motifs. Aida wears a cool, form-fitting magenta sheath. The tattooed Radames sports torso-revealing red “Mad Max” warrior garb in one scene, Armani-esque black Nehru jackets a little later.
And sure these attractive youngsters are talking earnestly about the perils of navigating the Nile and “women ravaged and children taken into slavery” (I’m so sure!), but they’re singing songs of yearning and frustration that might come right from heavy rotation on VH1, and they’re facing a dilemma that’s straight from the WB net: one pretty boy caught between two pretty girls.
The resolutely contemporary attitude that now infuses all aspects of the show is a brilliant stroke. It frees up “Aida” to make fun of itself; in Atlanta, the show’s wisecracks often fell flat because they weren’t as funny as the ludicrous period costumes, the stale choreography, the stilted dialogue. Here, the show’s latter-day attitude lets us know it’s in on the joke (“I’ll say this for you Egyptians,” muses Aida, stroking a scarf, “you’ve got a mean thread count”). Most of the time, that is. When the unavoidable plot is being prodded forward in the heavier book scenes, “Aida” still has many unintentionally silly moments, during which it’s best to fixate on the intricate details of Crowley’s scenery. (I wonder if I can get nifty hanging lamps like the ones in the show at Crate & Barrel?)
The principal performers do the best they can with the clunkier bits. Indeed, the chief advantage of the sleeker, more idiomatically contemporary frame is that it allows the stars to more clearly project their own charismatic talents, as well as the universal essence of the basic love story.
Even in Atlanta, Headley gave a blazing performance. She’s that and more here, a naturally radiant, radiantly natural performer who has a voice of great beauty and variety. The honesty and commitment of her acting go a long way toward making Aida’s dilemma moving, even if it’s never entirely credible.
Pascal, in frosted blond hair, is a likable, handsome presence, and he sings his many songs in a ruggedly soulful rock voice that’s nice to hear.
The show’s development has been kindest of all to Sherie Rene Scott, who is no longer required to pretend seriously to be an Egyptian princess. Instead she’s a princess of more recent vintage, a self-obsessed Cosmo girl with a fashion fixation, and a very funny one indeed. (Amneris does develop a conscience, though: Told of the Egyptians’ conquest of Babylon, this future heiress to the throne squeaks, “How oppressive of us!”) A terrific singer with a twangy pop voice, Scott also exuberantly leads the show’s splashiest, silliest number, “My Strongest Suit,” a girl’s love song to her wardrobe that now contains a fully staged runway fashion show — as in one of those B women’s pictures of the ’30s (though Crowley’s preposterous getups seem more inspired by Diana Ross’ creations for “Mahogany”).
In general, the score is tuneful, pleasant and nicely varied, though it wisely never strays far from John’s piano-rock roots. It does not contain a lot of instantly memorable music, though “Not Me,” new to the show, has a light charm and an insinuating melody, and “Elaborate Lives,” once the show’s title tune, is a particularly appealing anthemic ballad. Rice’s lyrics aren’t inspired, but many get lost in the power-pop orchestrations anyway. Falls’ staging presents most of the numbers as pop concert solos aimed at the audience, a task in which he is aided by Natasha Katz’s sculptural use of spotlights. This, too, cleverly focuses the attention on the singers and the songs, and not so much on their dramatic purposes.
Critics will hammer the show for its anachronisms and the contradictions between its breezy, jokey tone and the tragic story it’s purporting to tell. The problem stems from the show’s conception — how could it be possible convincingly and sensibly to tell this particular story in the idiom of contemporary pop-rock? Making a musical of “Aida” was perhaps not Elton John’s brightest idea.
It wasn’t Verdi’s either, come to think of it. The story is pretty hard to take seriously in most productions of the opera, too, as anyone who has watched one of today’s girth-challenged divas waddle across the Met stage in orange pancake makeup can attest. Just as opera companies everywhere must, Broadway’s “Aida” now does the best it can with the difficulties inherent in the material (with the sole exception of Wayne Cilento’s musicvideo-derived choreography, which is not much of an improvement on the Atlanta version).
To this end, the production offers a lot of diversions, from Crowley’s eye-catching, shape-shifting scenery to the beaming beauty of Headley’s smile and Scott’s snappy comic delivery. The musical is pure bubble gum, but at least now it’s stylishly packaged bubble gum. And whatever else you can say about the substance — it’s totally lacking in nutritional value, it gets stale quickly — it sure as hell sells.