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.
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.
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