Thursday, July 14, 2011

Unelaborate, unenchanting

Atlantis' staging of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida was not the spectacle I was hoping it would be. Maybe it's because anything with Sir Elton's name attached to it evokes images of rhinestones and sequins and neon, but I expected more visual impact than what was rather starkly laid out on the Carlos P. Romulo auditorium stage. The sets failed to evoke the golden grandeur of ancient Egypt, the costumes were oddly too modern, and even the performances were lackluster.

The only bright light in an otherwise dim production was Rachel Alejandro, cast in the role of Amneris, the Egyptian princess whose betrothed, the dashing captain Rademes, falls in love with the Nubian princess-turned-slave and eponymous heroine Aida. Ima Castro played the latter, and while her impressive vocal prowess was more than capable of taking on all the big songs with the big notes (particularly in the rousing pre-intermission number "The Gods Love Nubia"), she was just not convincing as the strong-willed, fiery Aida. Perhaps she lacked the regal bearing of a Nubian princess, or was a tad too... chunky to portray one, but all throughout I saw nothing that would make me believe a handsome Egyptian officer would choose her over a beautiful Egyptian princess. Indeed, in spite of her ditziness, Amneris came off as the more interesting of the two women: what she lacked in brains she made up for in charm, as well as an innate goodness and surprisingly, character. That was largely thanks to Ms. Alejandro's verve and strong stage presence. Just as she shone in Avenue Q, she was a joy to watch in Aida.

As for Myke Salomon, who lent his pipes and pecs to Rademes, he had only one facial expression (see above photo) throughout the entire show. Whether he was conveying joy, shock, anger, or regret, it was all the same unblinking, constipated look. I know he was trying to go for smoldering or intense, but he only ended up appearing petrified and pinched. Dude can sing, but couldn't act his way out of his army jacket.
This was most apparent in the more upbeat song "Fortune Favors the Brave", which he sang well, but could have elevated with more energy.

The supporting cast was not much better. I had been looking forward to seeing Rachel share the stage with her dad Hajji Alejandro, but Mr. Alejandro did not have his daughter's commanding presence, nor her powerful vocal ability. Playing Rademes' ambitious, scheming father, Hajji should have been forceful and intimidating. Sadly, he was rather mild, and almost mechanical. Also, his weak voice got swallowed up by the soaring music of his numbers ("Another Pyramid", "Like Father, Like Son"). On the other hand, Josh Santana gave a very raw, almost juvenile performance as
Mereb, one of Rademes' Nubian servants. Mereb came off as an eager beaver rather than the street-smart go-to guy he's supposed to be. I spotted talented Atlantis regular Felix Rivera (whom I really liked in both Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) in the chorus (WTH was he doing in the CHORUS?) and wistfully wished he had been cast as Mereb instead.

All the disappointing performances, coupled with the poor art direction, led me to wondering what the original Broadway production must have been like. And that's very telling, because whenever I watch an excellent local production of a Broadway play, I don't feel compelled to compare with an "imported" version. Aida left me wanting.

What I did enjoy about Aida was the music. The whole sound and feel of the musical was very much Elton John; I could practically hear him singing and banging away on his piano in most of the songs, especially in "Elaborate Lives", "Written in the Stars" and "I Know the Truth" (the latter reminded me of Elton John's pop classic "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word"). "The Gods Love Nubia" had both a gospel and African feel to it, reminiscent of The Lion King (music and lyrics also by Elton John and Tim Rice), and come to think of it, the jaunty "Another Pyramid" sounded suspiciously similar to "Hakuna Matata".

Aida's posters tout it as a "timeless love story", and it is very much that, with all the requisite elements (i.e. star-crossed lovers, a love triangle, difficult choices and tragic sacrifices). I guess it's nice that in an age of cynicism, there are still stories about passion that defies sociopolitical constructs, heroes man enough to fight for the women they love, and heroines strong enough to risk liberty (and life) to stay true to their hearts. Aida is just that kind of story-- if only Atlantis had done a better job of telling it.


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