WASHINGTON, October 20, 2018. Currently running at DC’s Source theater, the Constellation Theatre Company’s smashing production of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida is likely the most intimate take on this rousing Broadway / pop music hit that audiences anywhere are likely to see.
Let me preface this by noting that I’ve spent most of my reviewing career in the realm of classical music, including 15 years as the chief music critic for the Washington Times. In so doing, I’ve had the opportunity to see full productions of numerous grand operas, including Giuseppe Verdi’s classic opera, Aïda, which I’ve seen many times in many different productions.
In all cases, the opera was staged with all the royal pomp and epic grandeur any company can muster. The story and the libretto demand it, as does Verdi’s sweeping orchestral score. And operagoers expect no less than a sweeping stage epic as well.
That’s likely a big reason why Elton John and Tim Rice decided to get together and kick off a reboot of that former Verdi franchise that would appeal to turn-of-this-century musical theater fans who still love grand, Broadway-style shows, but with a punchier musical beat and with a story line reflecting and reinforcing popular contemporary memes.
A new Aida for a new century
Elton John’s and Time Rice’s all new and very different take on Aida opened on Broadway early in Y2K, promptly rocking enthusiastic audiences to the tune of 1,852 performances before its final curtain in 2004. But the show didn’t close before it copped 5 Tony Awards even as it picked up continuing kudos from rock fans, Broadway fans and critics alike.
The show’s appeal obviously centers around its crackling good musical score. This flashy, though occasionally poignant musical approach arguably evoked much the same kind of excited buzz that Verdi must have created for his 19th century audiences which, like audiences everywhere before or since, crave novelty, exoticism, romance and excitement in every production they see.
Constellation tackles a very big job and does so in a very big way
Constellation made a bold move when they decided to bring this wildly updated epic show to local audiences at the Source. Like Verdi’s original, the John-Rice Aida demands a big cast and a big space – like the Kennedy Center Opera House – in which to perform the show. The Source’s modest black-box space scarcely fits the bill here.
But, mirabilie dictu, Constellation has an uncanny knack for engineering productions to fit their tiny performance space while still making each production seem bigger than life.
Paradoxically, however, they also use this space to their advantage to add key moments of intimacy to their performances. Such moments often go missing in the showy bombast and clatter of big productions. They often rely more on flashy visuals than on the simple human joys and tragedies that elevate good shows into great ones.
And that’s just what Constellation does with its current production of Aida. With a sharp but condensed “orchestra” and a seriously trimmed down cast, the company’s current production manages to retain the pulse and the excitement of the original epic. But, under the skilled direction of Michael J. Bobbitt, it’s done in a way that invites the audience to feel personally involved with individual characters in a way that much larger productions can’t reproduce.
The plot of the modern Aida
The core story of Aida revolves around the improbable romance that gradually develops between the dashing and popular Egyptian military leader Radames (Jobari Parker-Namdar) and a young Nubian woman named Aida (Shayla S. Simmons). She, and many of her people were captured by the Egyptian army in a losing battle against them.
Destined to be taken to Egypt as slaves, both Aida and her fellow captives carefully conceal the fact that she is actually the daughter of the Nubian king and the royal princess of her defeated realm. Initially ignorant of this fact, Radames grandly bestows Aida as a “gift” to his betrothed, the princess Amneris (Chani Wereley), daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh.
As we can see, this can’t end up well. And things get worse when, inevitably, our strong-willed antagonists Radames and Aida reverse field and fall in love. This gets complicated further as Radames’ dad, the scheming Zoser (Greg Watkins), has been plotting to eliminate the pharaoh and replace him with his son. After Radames, of course, marries the princess Amneris as planned.
But now there’s that problem of Princess Aida and her dangerous liaison with Zoser’s son, the alleged Pharaoh-to-be. Even in ancient Egypt, life can get wickedly complicated when you mess with the Deep State.
Constellation’s cast: Aida and Radames
Given the up-close-and-personal approach Constellation takes with Aida, the company needed a first-class cast of singer-actors to take on the principal roles in this production. Happily, they managed to find them, and it’s largely due to their passion and energy that this production is a winner.
Literally inhabiting the lead role of Aida, Shayla S. Simmons is the center of attention in this production, even when she’s offstage. Functioning simultaneously as a Princess, a slave, a lady-in-waiting, a Nubian spy and a suddenly lovestruck young woman, Aida experiences a tumult of passions and emotions simultaneously and without respite. And Ms. Simmons’s powerful acting and vocal skills take us right along on Aida’s emotional roller-coaster ride.
Jobari Parker-Namdar initially portrays Radames as the boastful military leader we know him to be. Blustering, two-dimensional, he has no sympathy for his defeated foe and lets them know it all the time as he swaggers through the show’s early innings. But then he encounters love, the foe he cannot conquer, as he gets hit between the eyes with his newfound passion for Aida. As the transformation occurs, his initially boastful vocals turn more passionate.
Ms. Simmons and Mr. Parker-Namdar excel in their showy solo numbers. But they’re at their emotional best in passionate duets like “Elaborate Lives” and “Written in the Stars.”
The plight of Royal Princess Amneris
As the unfortunate third wheel in Aida’s love triangle, Chani Wereley gets the character of Amneris just right. Amneris is madly in love with the heroic Radames, who was betrothed to her at an early age. She correctly senses he’s lost all feelings for her, although this has never been uncommon in the long history of arranged royal matches.
But, wanting something more and not getting it, she’s turned into a vain royal fashionista, perhaps as a defensive maneuver against a personal world that’s falling apart. By projecting this inner quarrel with great empathy, Ms. Wereley actually gets us to sympathize with her apparently vain and vapid Royal Princess, as we get a strong sense of the deep, emotional pain that hides beneath all her surface glitter.
This internal battle is perhaps best reflected in Amneris’ two key vocals in this show. The outrageously costumed, fashion-forward Ms. Wereley proudly struts Amneris’ stuff proclaiming her outward glamor in the ironic number, “My Strongest Suit.” But on the flip side, she reflects the visceral pain of Amneris’ third-wheel romantic status as she reveals to the audience – and herself – this crushing reality in the deeply sorrowful lament, “I Know the Truth.”
Mereb: Just an Everyman doing his patriotic job
Not part of Aida’s love triangle but an integral part of its plot is the kind but subtle character of Mereb. Forced into slavery at an early age, this young Nubian managed to embed himself in the Pharaoh’s inner circle. A nationalist in the purest sense of that word, he still longs to return to his home country.
He also serves as a secret spy in the court, ready and able to support any uprising against the Egyptian enemy. And when he discovers that his Royal Princess is secretly among the latest batch of Nubian captives, he’s quick to communicate that to other rebellious exiles. Tragedy awaits him as well, as indeed it does for any romantic idealists that fall afoul of the imperial heart of Egypt. D’Von Moody articulates this role with wit and dignity, representing in many ways an Everyman who finds himself lonely and cast adrift in a world he never intended to make.
Zoser, Aida’s Royal Bad Guy
Let’s not forget Greg Watkins. His acrid turn as Radames’ corrupt father Zoser adds extra spice to this production. In this Y2K edition of Aida, this character can become a two-dimensional comic book villain. But Mr. Watkins generally avoids degenerating into a Snidely Whiplash look-alike. In so doing, he shows the true face of his cold amorality particularly when his royal takeover plot falls apart.
Constellation’s terrific Aida chorus / ensemble
Aida boasts a sixth major character in this production as well. How can anyone ignore Aida’s larger-than-life ensemble of singer-dancer-actors?
Alternately portraying Egyptian courtiers and solders as well as various Nubian captives, the ensemble functions as an updated Greek chorus. Touchingly and, at times, passionately they represent the souls of little people crushed by power-mad ruling elites. In so doing, they add the vitality of life itself to this production.
Direction and Choreography
In addition to the fine directorial effort of Michael J. Bobbitt cited earlier, additional hat tips are in order. The first goes to Choreographer Tony Thomas II. He keeps his cast almost constantly in motion, particularly in complex production numbers. These make grand use of Source’s limited space while retaining the energy and scope of the original.
Lighting and Costuming
Next up: The truly fantastic efforts of Scenic and Lighting Designer A.J. Guban. His one-size-fits-all stage set-up simultaneously suggests battlefields, Pharoah’s court, an intimate boudoir and a cold, darkened tomb. He suggests all these and more simply by altering the neon-like lighting schemes embedded in his geometric stage design.
An additional hat tip goes to Costume Designer Kenann M. Quander. He outfits his players in colorful or drab clothing, appropriately reflecting each character’s high- or low-born status. While not period-authentic, these costumes convey an historical sense. But they also provide plenty of freedom of movement for the cast during Aida’s energetic song and dance numbers.
A hat tip to the musicians and soundsystem
And finally, kudos to Walter “Bobby” McCoy, the Musical Director and conductor of this great Constellation production. Hidden stage left behind a serial set of angular screens, he and his crackerjack ensemble put out a flashy R&B soundstage that perfectly complements the singers and chorus without drowning them out.
The amplification system for this production avoids a common but major problem; namely, overwhelming both vocals and lyrics. I regularly encounter this issue in Broadway revivals and rock epics. As a critic and theater fan that’s why I generally favor un-amped opera productions. I find Constellation’s refreshing, expertly calibrated approach to Aida all too rare in contemporary productions. It proved most welcome: another plus, and a big one, for this terrific Constellation show.
Who and What: Constellation Theatre’s production of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida.
Running time: About 2 hours, 10 minutes with a single 15-minute intermission.
When: Through November 18, 2018.
Where: Source, 1835 14thSt. NW, Washington, DC 20009
Tickets and information: Tickets are selling fast, and run from $25-$55. Wait-list seating for sold-out shows currently priced at $61. Tickets and seating choices are available online via this link.
— Headline image: Constellation Theatre Company’s Aida. Jobari Parker-Namdar at center, Lawrence Hailes, Wendell Jordan, Topher Williams, Ian Anthony Coleman (left to right). Photo by DJ Corey Photography.