How time flies. I remember going to the newly-renovated Cadillac Palace way back in 1999 to see the pre-Broadway premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls. I took away two things from that viewing experience- despite the mega-millions thrown onstage, there was an unfortunately high level of cheesiness in the show (including a heinous fashion runaway scene…yeah, in ancient Egypt); but there was also the wondrous, dazzling, breakthrough performance of Heather Headley as Aida, who, a year later, deservedly won a Tony. In the newly-revitalized Bailiwick Chicago’s minimalist version of this excess-prone theatrical relic of the go-go 90s, there are still moments that feel like they came packaged from those curd stands lining the highways of Wisconsin, but there’s also a lot more heartfelt emotion, a little bit more urban edge (thanks to impressively muscular choreography from the Artistic Directors of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater), and best of all, a similarly wondrous, scintillating, blow-the-rooftop-off-this building performance from Rashada Dawan as the titular Nubian princess.
Sir Elton’s Aida has probably, in my opinion, one of the most one-dimensional, reductive books in contemporary musical theater (written by, among others, Falls and David Henry Hwang). It’s a historically disingenuous, somewhat narrow-minded, at times overly camp tale where everyone suffers nobly until they die. So a production really needs strong lead performers that can captivate the audience and allow them to suspend disbelief in a show that requires a lot of it. And Dawan, who I’ve never seen before onstage, gives this production its energetically beating heart. She’s able to capture the dignity, refinement, and prideful will of a princess, but also beautifully gives Aida a very modern, pretty fierce, edge. This is one chick who you know from the outset will not bow down to any man, and who will, and who can, fight it out to the death with the best of them. And Dawan sings the songs magically, sensually, powerfully – from “Elaborate Lives” to “How I Know You” to the showstopping first act group number “The Gods Love Nubia”- elevating, and finding nuance, in John and Rice’s pop score cannily manufactured for Disneyfied Broadway audiences. Dawan is matched by a very, very good Adrianna Parson as Amneris, the Egyptian princess who is Aida’s rival for the affections of the warrior Radames. Amneris is initially portrayed as a shallow, fashion-obsessed, spoiled princess who, at the end, displays the merciful but determined authority that will characterize her future reign as the Queen of Egypt. Parson has excellent comedic timing, and gets the majority of the laughs in the first act, but also excellently displays the heartbreak and the selfless compassion of an unrequited lover. Unfortunately, her character oversees that ridiculous fashion show, which, although staged on a smaller-scale in this production, is so baked into the musical number “My Strongest Suit” that it can’t be mercilessly gutted out. Even in 1999, pre-Project Runaway, this fashion show interlude felt forced and dated. Brandon Chandler, as Radames, is gorgeous, and sings gorgeously, but seems to be drowned out, literally and figuratively, by the two larger-than-life female lead performances. And speaking of hotness, this ensemble is probably the best-looking and the sexiest one that is currently performing onstage in the city, and thankfully, they all sing and dance exceptionally well. “The Gods Love Nubia” is gutsy, exuberant, joyous, a perfect first-act capper.
Director Scott Ferguson tightly directs this musical theater ship, and minimizes the cheesiness. I’m a little perplexed, though, as to why he stages the opening second act musical number “ A Step Too Far” similarly to Falls’ conception- the three lead performers framed by windows. I thought, then, and still think now, it’s a little too StarSearch for my taste. I’m also not as convinced by some of Jared B. Moore’s lighting choices – those circling, patterned spotlights are so 1980s. But the choreography, by Deeply Rooted artistic leaders Gary Abbott and Kevin Iega Jeff, is excellently conceptualized and integrated into the show. The dancing is very urban, sexy, and hip – stylized movement that I wanted to see more of. The dance numbers, together with the performances, really make a difference in allowing this show transcend its roots as cotton-candy Disney fare, an adult, human version of The Lion King set in Egypt instead of Africa. And with this fresh look at Aida, a tough sell even for musical theater queens like me, the new leadership of Bailiwick Chicago auspiciously leaves its calling card – signifying that the theater is back with a vengeance. And I’m very thrilled for that.
Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida runs at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron. Discovering the immense talent of someone like Rashada Dawan is one of the pleasures of theatergoing in Chicago.
Tags: Bailiwick Chicago