Strong lead actress, fellow cast members bring Broadway’s “Aida” to life in Orlando.

ORLANDO – It could be just an odd coincidence – perhaps not – that months after the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre decided to produce the Elton John-Tim Rice musical “Aida,” the opening weekend would coincide with an explosion of civil unrest and violence in the very place where the play is set.

It’s been estimated that the street protests in Egypt calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak started with a group of Internet-savvy young political organizers. Some of the protests started online, through Facebook, and the organizers got a good sense of just how strong the movement would become when more than 90,000 people signed up online.

Since then, tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in cities across Egypt, while the government responded by shutting down the Internet in the region, making access to the Facebook and Twitter websites inaccessible from within Egypt. That prompted President Obama to “call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to…. interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.”

“Aida” was taken from a children’s storybook version of  the Verdi opera, and later was acquired by Walt Disney studios for a possible animated feature film. The movie eventually got shelved, but the source material evolved into a stage musical with songs by John and Rice. Although it’s set at a time well before the Internet, Facebook or cell phones came in handy, the story’s themes are in some ways eerily similar to what’s happening in Egypt today: the call for freedom from an oppressive government, opposition to brutal rule, the desire to end the injustices that a group of people feel they live with every day.  In a strange coincidence, the themes of the musical and the voices of the Egypt protestors seem to complement one another.

As Paul Castaneda, the play’s director, points out in the progam’s liner notes, “ ‘Aida’ is a musical about a clash of cultures, about what happens when a stronger, more modernized, and in their minds more cultured society interacts and eventually wars with one they consider to be backwards and beneath them. That is a theme that is repetitive within the human experience — and as relevant today as in centuries’ past.” Click on CNN and watch the national news broadcasts tonight, and you might conclude they’re saying the exact same thing. 

Desiree Perez (as Aida) and Adam McCabe (as Radames) star in the GOAT revival of Elton John and Tim Rice's musical "Aida."

GOAT had an interesting challenge in staging “Aida” at the Goldman Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center.  The Broadway version had the kind of extravagant budget that brings with it elaborate sets, stunning costumes, a live orchestra and flashy light and sound effects. GOAT doesn’t have a Broadway budget, obviously, and the Goldman Theater certainly isn’t similar in size to a Broadway show for expensive tickets.

It shows – the GOAT production has minimalist sets and relies instead on that most old-fashioned community theater approach, asking the audience to invest their imagination into the story.  It’s a gamble that I like largely works, for a couple of reasons.

“Aida” tells the story of Radames, captain of the Egyptian army, who returns with his soldiers from the land of Nubia, Egypt’s long-time enemy. The soliders capture several Nubian women, and he becomes fascinated with one of them, Aida, after she tries to free herself by engaging in a sword fight with one of his soldiers. Radames decides to save the women from the misery of serving in the copper mines by making Aida a handmaiden to his future bride-to-be, Princess Amneris.

Radames’ father, Chief Minister Zoser, greets his son’s return by letting him know the Pharaoh is dying and Radames will soon become the next ruler of Egypt – although Zoser declines to mention that he’s been poisoning the Pharaoh to speed up his son’s rise to the throne.

Radames, on the other hand, is increasingly drawn to Aida – a dangerous proposition.

The GOAT production gets off to a good start with the introduction of Desiree Perez as Aida, the defiant, brave and smart Nubian who finds out all too quickly that being intelligent is seen as both a liability and a threat to your oppressors – similar, I note once again, to the current situation in Eygpt. Perez gives us an Aida we really want to root for, one we believe could lead her people out of their oppression if only she didn’t lack the means to do so.

Krystal Gillette is equally good as Princess Amneris, whose opulant lifestyle masks her own insecurities, including her uncomfortable sense that her fiance has little genuine interest in her. Ian Clark makes a suitably loud and aggressive villain as Zoser, and Adam McCabe gives us a Radames who finds it easier to control an army than control his own romantic feelings. Suitably cast, this small scale production of a splashy Broadway musical manages to survive nicely without the razzle dazzle that a big budget would deliver, because the performers dive into the heart of the show: two lovers trying to figure out if they can follow their hearts when tradition warns them not to go there.

In the actors’ hands, the absence of huge Egyptian sets doesn’t even seem like an afterthought by the third song.  It’s no surprise that “Aida” has become a popular choice for school and community theater revivals; the play’s themes are, as Castaneda noted, fairly timeless, and that couldn’t have been more true this weekend, as I watched Diane Sawyer report on the violence in Cairo at 6:30 Sunday night, and then watched “Aida” at 7:30.

If I have any quibbles with the show, it’s with Elton John’s score. Some of the music is quite good, but overall it lacks the killer hooks you might associate with, say, tossing “Elton John’s Greatest Hits” into your car CD player and remembering why he completely ruled FM radio for so long in the 1970s.  His “Aida” score isn’t always that polished, but maybe I had higher expectations than I should have based on the songwriter’s reputation.

In any event,  I found that the play’s second act successfully captures a growing mood of suspense and tension as Radames’ passion for Aida swamps  his understanding of the grave dangers that puts her in.  Is “Aida” one of those musicals that really belongs to the cozy intimacy of the small stage? I’d  have to have seen the Broadway version to honestly answer that, but I will say this story works well in GOATS’ hands.  Freedom, you end up concluding, has been terribly costly over the centuries, but is worth the ongoing battle.

“Aida” runs now through Feb. 13, at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in downtown Orlando. For tickets, call 407-872-8451 or log on to www.goatgroup.org.

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

The ideal babysitter: “The Little Drummer Boy” charms young faces

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – I’m always amazed at how well behaved children can sometimes be while watching live theater.

I’ve seen kids from local schools get bused into the spacious Orlando Repertory Theatre for a 90-minute show, and wondered how long their attention span will last — and whether at some point during the performance, I won’t be able to hear the actors anymore. Surprisingly, that’s never happened. For a generation growing up on rapid-paced, visually stunning video games, good theater – and the Rep truly has done some excellent shows – still manages to keep them entertained, happy — and quiet.

I was wondering the same thing on Sunday when I went to the Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater at the Altamonte Mall, which was performing a holiday favorite, “The Little Drummer Boy,” in what turned out to be a packed audience. That included quite a few young kids who sat up front on the floor below the stage. Although the show lasted just 40 minutes, was that too long to keep the young ones from getting antsy?

Even one of the puppet masters, Richard Hudnall, who introduced the show, had to remind the kids before the show started that “Today you’re in a live theater and that’s a little bit different than being at home in front of the TV or in the movies.”

Different, indeed. But there were no signs of kids looking bored, ready to go home. The tale of the little drummer boy who goes searching for his lost donkey in Bethlehem, before delivering a special gift to the baby Jesus, proven to be positively enchanting to the tiny faces in the audience.

Interestingly, puppetry appears to have been all the rage this year.  In October, the Orlando Puppet Festival at Loch Haven Park included original works like the Empty Spaces Theatre Co.’s “Phantasmagoria,” which recreated classic horror stories like “Frankenstein” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” through nearly life-sized puppets, which also revisiting the dark, violent comedy of a European-style Punch & Judy show.

Earlier this month, the Marke Sisters used marionettes in “Macabre Vignettes III: Snow,” a mix of modern dance, puppets and odd sculptures.
Those shows, however, represented marionettes for adults in pieces that were dark, disturbing and intricate – a reminder that not all puppet shows are designed solely for children.  Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater goes back to the more traditional concept of puppetry, though: the way marionettes can seem wonderfully spellbinding to children.

The theater got its start in May 1999, when a touring marionette company called Puppet Celebration, Inc. first started performing marionette shows across the region, in everything from elementary schools to libraries and civic auditoriums.

In 2002, the name was changed to Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater and it found a permanent home in the Orlando area before moving to the Altamonte Mall.  It’s been a fixture there ever since, drawing in crowds — young and old alike — for what may be the most unique and enjoyable children’s theater in this region.   

Marionettes welcome children from the front window of Pinocchio's Marionette Theater at the Altamonte Mall.

As the theater’s Web site notes, “The multiple goals of Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater have always been to help preserve the art and craft of marionette puppetry; to introduce children to live theater; and to teach theater etiquette.”

“The Little Drummer Boy” is an excellent example of the theater’s work, and why they manage to captivate small children. At times funny, certainly very sentimental, and by the end quite uplifting, this show gives us an ideal hero for the kids to relate to in Joshua, the boy who has lost his parents and now lives with his aging grandmother and their pet lamb and donkey.

When the donkey wanders off, Joshua sets out to find it, but arrives at the town of Bethlehem on a momentous day: the messiah is to be born that day.

Along the way, Joshua must fend off the rascally tricks of the Magnificent Barnibus, a scheming and greedy merchant who tries to entertain crowds by climbing atop his Trembling Tower of Trash.  When Joshua accidentally ruins his con – er, performance – it means war.

Along the way, the theater provides the audience with plenty to keep their attention: puppets that dance and juggle, moments that are sad and dramatic, others that prompted  even the adults to laugh out loud. It all comes to the final moments in the manger, when young Joshua discovers that doing good for someone else will ultimately be rewarding to him as well.

At the end of the show, the adults in the audience applauded, but the children did something different: they crowded around the stage, cheering, getting a closer look at the marionettes that had fascinated them for the past 40 minutes, then posing happily as their parents took multiple photos of them.

The theater is named after the classic wooden puppet, Pinocchio.

It’s hard to imagine a stronger and more impressive sign of approval from the kids. Their positive reactive to “The Little Drummer Boy” is no surprise, though, because this theater truly does understand what it takes to charm our youngest audiences, and it delivers for them handsomely.

“The Little Drummer Boy” continues tonight through Saturday, Jan. 1 at 10:30 a.m. and  12:30, 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 2 at 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30 p.m. Ticket are $5 for adults and children ages 2 and up. For reservations call 407-834-8757 or email BoxOffice@Pinocchios.net.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

“Dickens by Candlelight” is an enchanting theatrical experience.

ORLANDO – In his day, Charles Dickens would act out his classic short story “A Christmas Carol” in front of family, friends and other audiences, performing all the roles himself.

Considering how many characters there are in the saga of Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him into an emotional reawakening, a theater could easily find a cast of more than 20 actors to tell the entire story.

And it might seem an odd choice to have just one actor play every role, even if, for example, the actor happens to be someone as talented as Orlando’s veteran actor/director John DiDonna, who seems more than capable of tackling Scrooge one second, Tiny Tim the next, and making both roles seem believable and engaging.

In “Dickens by Candlelight,” DiDonna plays Scrooge and a host of other roles, although he’s not alone on the stage, since he’s aided by actresses Morgan Russel and Monica Tamborello. Their goal is to bring Scrooge’s epic holiday journey to life in a way that seems fresh, invigorating, and funny. But with just three people alternating so many different characters and locations, does it work?

Before the show starts, the actors gather around a piano and lead the audience in singing Christmas carols.

As it turns out, quite magically.

To start with, Robin Olson’s adaptation of the Dickens holiday favorite has found the ideal location for this piece: the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Lake Ivanhoe. The renovated and restored home for the Orlando Ballet and the former Orlando Opera has a huge room ideally suited for this production, which dispenses with the traditional notion of audience members seated before a stage that the actors perform on. Instead, “Dickens by Candlelight” follows the much more engaging concept of having the audience seated at 10 tables decoratively set across the room, where pots of tea and plates of fresh cookies await them. There’s a huge and beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree in the front entrance, and bows hanging in the windows. And, not surprisingly, there are lit candles on every table, and you’ll be thrilled at the moment when the room falls into total darkness – save for those candles, which give the room an enchanting feeling.

It gets better, though. When you first walk into the main hallway of the Performing Arts Center, you discover a grand piano that the actors stand next to as they lead the audience in singing several Christmas carols, before taking them into the theater. Everyone gets shown to their table, and they have a few minutes to meet the people seated with them. They can also use this time to pour some hot tea and enjoy the cookies awaiting them. If some holiday productions are just about seeing the show, “Dickens by Candlelight” goes a few steps further in making it a shared experience among audience and actors alike, a festive holiday event where we sing together, dine together, and experience together the glory of Scrooge’s newfound spirit of giving.

The three actors stay engaged with the audience even after the show has started, moving from table to table, talking occasionally to the people seated there, even inviting a few audience members to act out a scene with them. All the while the tea keeps flowing and the cookies keep disappearing, and DiDonna, Russel and Tamborello keep you fascinated with their energetic, electric command of the show.

Perhaps my favorite moment: there are bells at the every table, and at one point in the show, the audience is asked to ring those bells, filling the room with that happy sound. Waiting a few seconds for the bells to stop ringing, DiDonna paused, then added, “Not bad.”

As Scrooge, DiDonna takes a highly familiar character – a cynical, cold-hearted miser who despises the notion of employees being given a day off with pay once a year, just to celebrate a silly old holiday – and makes him seem both all too human and familiar, and at the same time larger than life. His journey of self-discovery and then rebirth is exciting, funny and, happily for the season, life-affirming.  

"Dickens by Candlelight" is magical.

This 90-minute production, performed without intermission, moves so briskly that you might be surprised at how quickly it goes by. And at the very least, if this doesn’t send you right into the mood and spirit of the season, check your pulse on the way out the door. “Dickens by Candlelight” is a happy reminder of why we love this time of year: the joy of being together, celebrating the things that make us feel like a little family, even for just one night.

“Dickens by Candlelight” will be performed tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at 1111 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors and students. For tickets, call 407-409-1619.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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