One mustn't peer too deeply into the soul of "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida." The politics of colonization, race and slavery drift about in unconvincing cross currents -- never feeling satisfying or profound.
No, this is a grand love story -- a tragic romance that offers the rare glimmer of a second chance.
"Aida" finds its strength in songs, performance and spectacle. And these elements -- mixed in potent measure -- animate the Theater Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust production that opened Saturday at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis.
This staging launches "Broadway Re-Imagined," a series aimed at raising the theatrical stakes in the Twin Cities -- at least in terms of musicals. How refreshing to find producers with the audacity to believe that this community's work is important and worthwhile, with the potential to export on tour.
Director Peter Rothstein uses the full operatic lexicon -- including broad stereotypes and epic images -- to propel his production. The standout numbers from the opening minutes, for example, come from Cat Brindisi as ditzy princess Amneris and Ben Bakken as villainous Zoser. These characters skate on the thin edge of caricature with supreme self-awareness and commitment. Brindisi's confidence grows every time she opens her mouth or vamps like a fool; Bakken, in "Another Pyramid," relishes the gritty skin of Zoser and reminds us that he's among the very best music-theater performers in town.
The lovers are never as interesting as the clowns (quick, name a romantic lead from a Marx Brothers movie). Austene Van and Jared Oxborough do, however, warm up to an honest affection between the Nubian princess Aida and Radames, her captor and then forbidden paramour.
Their chemistry keeps us interested in the machinations leading to a sad fate, but again the details matter less than the raw and emotional power found in such propulsive numbers as "Dance of the Robe" and "The Gods Love Nubia." Van leads both with a fierce, almost reckless, power that comes from deep within her heart. Oxborough sounds stronger than he ever has on stage, with a keen vulnerability in Radames' sad rich boy persona.
Choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell and music director Jason Hansen are like the bass line of a popular song -- the hidden bone structure and lifeblood that keeps everything alive.
Technically, this show could not be stronger. Set designer Joel Sass works in a royal blue and gold palette, with imposing obelisks, lovely painted scrims and witty touches such as a ship model that scrolls high above the stage. Tulle and Dye's costumes mash up styles and eras to create distinct icons rather than a specific world. We feel Marcus Dilliard's lighting design turn the mood.
It is one thing to say that Rothstein, Latté Da and the Theatre Trust should be celebrated for pushing the envelope with this new production. It is another to say this "Aida" is compelling and worth seeing on the terms of entertainment and as an example of what local artists can do.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299