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Le Petit Theatre's: Aida 

Donald Byrd directs Le Petit Theatre's season opener.

Aida

8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.; through Sept. 20

Le Petit Theatre du Vieux carre, 616 S. Peters St., 522-2081; www.lepetittheatre.com

Tickets $23-$60

click to enlarge Donald Byrd works on a dance number with the cast of - Aida. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

Renowned choreographer and director Donald Byrd has become a familiar face around the French Quarter. He came to New Orleans to direct the preview run of the Broadway-bound production of White Noise and agreed to stay and direct Aida to open Le Petit Theatre's season.

  "I never really left New Orleans," he says, sitting in the courtyard at Le Petit before rehearsal. "My experience with White Noise was really positive in terms of being in New Orleans. I also like the fact that this is the oldest community theater in the country. That's appealing to me."

  While White Noise was in production, Le Petit was getting ready to announce its 2009-10 season. Managing director Gary Solomon mentioned to Byrd that he didn't yet have a director for Aida and Byrd expressed interest in taking on the task. Rather than check out of his hotel, he's become a short-term resident, with a regular routine at a handful of nearby coffeeshops and courtyard restaurants.

  Byrd made a name for himself with his dance company Donald Byrd/The Group, which he founded in Los Angeles in 1978, moved to New York in 1983 and dissolved in 2002. Since then, he's been the artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, and he has directed theatrical productions including The Color Purple (2005), which was nominated for a Tony Award. He has directed Verdi's operatic version of Aida twice.

  "I think the musical is a much more honest approach to the story," he says. "It's not pretentious. It has more humor in it. It has the essence of the opera — the conflict between responsibility or duty and the pull of the heart — but it's clearer in the musical."

  The Broadway version features music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. It focuses on the love story of Nubian princess Aida and an Egyptian soldier, Radames, as he is about to wed Amneris, the pharoah's daughter. The nations are at war, but Radames falls for Aida, unaware of her true identity.

  As a choreographer, Byrd has brought his gifts with movement and dance to the production, and he's pushed himself to do more teaching and coaching with a cast that spans both Equity actors and aspiring young talents. It's a familiar environment to Byrd, who started his career as a teenager in a community theater in Clearwater, Fla. "Community theater is the first place where people aspire to a certain professionalism," he says.

  Le Petit's season of six musicals also includes Damn Yankees, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, 13, Grey Gardens and The Wedding Singer.

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