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Up the Nile Without a Paddle 

Don’t cry for me, ancient Egypt . . .

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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By sheer coincidence this musical, set in the turbulent Middle East, had been scheduled before September 11 to -- kidding! Reading press releases these days, you’d think half the plays opening in L.A. have some serendipitous relevance to the carnage of two months ago. Rest assured, though, that the extravaganza Aida makes no claims on any kind of relevance -- it aims to be escapist fun from start to finish. The multiple-Tony winner for 2000, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, only half succeeds, however, removing Ahmanson Theater audiences far from today‘s headlines, but only occasionally making its long ride very much fun.

This latest blockbuster to have rolled off the Disney assembly line of animated and live-action musicals has one foot planted in Verdi’s 1871 opera and the other in contemporary notions of political correctness. It‘s the story of the eponymous Nubian princess (Simone), smitten with an Egyptian army commander named Radames (Patrick Cassidy), who has captured and brought her up the Nile into slavery. Ancient Nubia, you might recall, was a black African kingdom whose gold, ebony and ivory were coveted by its powerful neighbor to the north. (So close to Egypt, so far from Isis!)

Here, it is located somewhere between Ramsesian Aswan and the Lion King -- its lack of historical references, along with Bob Crowley’s surreally eclectic costumes, suggests our story is set in some Anytime Egypt. (Although Radames‘ shoulder-padded military tunic and the cut of his sideburns place it somewhere during the Adam Ant dynasty.) Aida becomes the handmaiden of her captor’s betrothed -- the pharaoh‘s vain, selfish daughter, Amneris (Kelli Fournier), who is, as one flunky says, “First in beauty, wisdom and accessories.” Amneris is not so stuck up, though, that she can’t appreciate the erudite Aida as a “slave who knows her fabrics,” and she soon befriends the Nubian, never suspecting Aida‘s own royal background.

Amneris’ problem is that she‘s been engaged to Radames for nine years, yet in this time her hunk has not so much as removed his scabbard in her presence; in fact, every time her flesh calls, his crawls and he takes off on a new military campaign. Now, we can guess what’s up with that, as can the writers, but instead of fostering this coyly gay subtext, librettists Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang let it drop -- M. Cleopatra this is not.

Instead, a familiar Disney template takes over the plot -- studly but fair-minded conqueror is bewitched by bodaciously empowered babe whose kisses tutor him on the yuckiness of gender and cultural hegemony. Meanwhile, Radames‘ dad, Zoser (Neal Benari), provides the necessary evil by plotting to seize the throne through a scheme that requires son and Amneris to wed soon.

This visually gorgeous show owes its luster to scenic and costume designer Crowley, who displays a Bedouin poet’s fascination with water and palm-silhouetted horizons. In one fantastic moment early in Act 1, the scene shifts to an enormous round swimming pool that faces the viewer like a porthole, as its female swimmers, wearing sequined Esther Williams caps, breaststroke in midair -- a coup de theatre that, unhappily, misleads us into thinking a dazzling experience lies in store for us. For stagecraft can only do so much for Aida, whose music and book writers lag far behind the show‘s designers in their appreciation for surprise and hyperbole, and who, by the middle of Act 1, have pretty much punched their time cards for the night.

Aida is not without some narrative smarts, however, bookended as it is by nicely understated vignettes that occur in a modern museum’s Egyptian wing -- a setting in which the long-dead characters are wittily reincarnated. And the Motown-y tune “My Strongest Suit” is a rocket of a number in which Amneris declares, in the midst of a hallucinogenically opulent fashion show, her allegiance to clothes. Here again, credit Crowley and his flamboyant outfits (Amneris‘ headgear includes a statuette of the cat goddess Bastet), along with Wayne Cilento’s choreography.

Yet it is precisely the promiscuous eclecticism of Aida‘s look and movement that prevents us from becoming very attached to its story or characters. The jarring rock & roll dancing of “Another Pyramid” employs everything but a fog machine, yet seems at odds with the romantic texture that the rest of the show aims for, and the ensemble’s Mandarin tunics in this number might have been lifted from Flower Drum Song next door at the Mark Taper. And it is during “My Strongest Suit” that songwriters John and Rice prematurely peak, never again coming close to duplicating the wit and verve of this number. Instead, they mechanically pour their songs into genre molds ranging from ballad rock to reggae to jazz, but with none of the soul of their source material. Unlike John and Rice‘s work in The Lion King, their songs here only wear on the ear, linked simply by a tone both treacly and narcotizing.

A repetitive hodgepodge of styles and genres that’s about half a dozen songs too long, Aida, finally, has no central locale or visual organizing principle like The Lion King‘s Pride Rock. Director and co-librettist Falls, who gave us such a powerful yet nuanced Death of a Salesman last year, has overlooked what The Lion King’s Julie Taymor knew instinctively -- a story with this sort of visual sprawl must have a place to which the audience can return, otherwise the work becomes a cold exercise in special effects.

Aida‘s lack of musical body temperature is evident from the moment “My Strongest Suit”’s reprise ends, and extends to the cast itself. While Simone has the passion and the pipes to command our attention whenever she is onstage, her scenes with Radames play like an underfunded chemistry experiment. Part of this flows from Cassidy‘s lack of pharaonic charisma -- he also wilts whenever placed next to Fournier’s radiantly bitchy Amneris. But it is ultimately Falls‘ misguided direction and the failure of the show’s writing committee that suck the air from Aida.

The problem with Aida isn‘t that it doesn’t know what it wants to be, but that it doesn‘t care to be anything at all. Even though this is a Disney project, its adult-enough themes do not make it the kind of entertainment you’d want to bring a child to. There are moments of costume camp that border on Martha Stewart parody (“I‘ll say this for you Egyptians,” Aida reluctantly admits, “you have amazing thread count”), yet these mostly evaporate after Act 1. The librettists also occasionally play the Nubian card, but no one seriously thinks of Aida as a call for social justice or a fable about power. (It doesn’t help that most of Zoser‘s mischief -- and even his unmasking -- occurs offstage.)

“This is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate,” Disney’s corporate marketeers trumpet -- one of those banal “now and forever” slogans that could refer to any time between now and 5,000 years ago. In the end, this Aida has less in common with Saharan Egypt than with another desert location that is more appreciative of the show‘s superficiality and bombast, an oasis called Las Vegas.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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