A rock opera trying to be grand opera can be a stretch. Le Petit Theatre's Aida invoked the grandeur of ancient Egypt, but was more comfortable with the unshackled fun of musical theater than the tragedy of doomed love and dynastic cabals. Elton John wrote the music and Tim Rice penned the lyrics for this popular adaptation of Verdi's opera. Things were kept hip with a time warp approach to the material.
The play starts in the Egyptian wing of a museum, where the characters who will later play roles in the ancient kingdom stroll around in modern dress. Once we're transported back to the land of pyramids and papyrus, the play follows the well-known story of love between the Egyptian warrior Radames (Keith Claverie) and Aida (Idella Johnson), a captured Nubian woman he claims as his slave, not realizing she is a princess.
Radames is betrothed to the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris (Leslie Limberg), and his father, Chief Minister Zoser (Christopher Bentivegna) is slowly poisoning the Pharaoh (Michael P. Sullivan) so Radames will quickly ascend to the throne. The plot thickens when Aida's father, King Amonasro (Troy R. Poplous), is taken prisoner by the Egyptians. Another enslaved Nubian, Mereb (James St. Juniors), recognizes Aida and brings her to a gathering of their people, who pledge their loyalty and ask her to lead them. She is stirred and agrees, but she is unsure what she can do for them.
Aida's greatest resource is Radames' love for her, but the Nubians and the Egyptians are enemies. Love triumphs up to a point, but we never clearly see the moment when Radames is moved to give his possessions to the Nubians. Nor are we prepared for the new stature Amneris assumes at the musical's end.
But rock opera is less about clarity than music, song and dance. The musical won a Tony Award and a Grammy for the score, but for me, the music sometimes suffered from a smooth-packaged, sanitized ease.
The cast exuded energy and verve. Everyone had great moments, however, Idella Johnson deserves a special tip of the hat for her incarnation of the proto-feminist Nubian princess.
Donald Byrd directed and choreographed the piece with a sure hand. Jonathan Foucheaux's lighting was effective, particularly the eerie yellow-green spears of light that fall on Christopher Ford's geometric stone facade in the opening tableau. James Kelley did the musical direction and Joan Long designed the attractive costumes.
Aida playwrights Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang built some quandaries into their book. The tragedy at the heart of story is never convincing. At Le Petit, the cast carried us merrily past the rough spots and presented effervescent musical entertainment more reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan than Verdi.