For some of us dyed-in-the-Verdi types, the biggest hurdle to be overcome when facing the Elton John/Tim Rice musical “Aida” is: Why? I mean, what is the point of creating a pop/rock version of what is widely considered the grandest of grand operas?
Well, this second “Aida” may not hold a candle to Verdi’s original, but, as ArtsCentric demonstrates in its high-energy revival, it does have its effective points and messages, and, above all, its own, often very demonstrative voice.
A hit with audiences, if not all critics, when it opened on Broadway in 2000, the musical is hardly the last word on stylistic cohesion or cliche-aversion.
The basic plot, set in ancient Egypt, remains more or less as in the opera. Aida, a Nubian princess enslaved by the Egyptians, becomes handmaiden to the princess Amneris, whose betrothed is the army hero Radames. Aida and Radames secretly become an item and get caught up in activities leading to charges of treason and a gruesome death sentence of being buried alive.
Three writers, among them Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, prepared the musical’s book, which adds new characters, character traits, situations and even humor to that outline. The notion of reincarnation is introduced to particularly significant theatrical purpose.
In addition to the love-triangle element, the story touches on issues of freedom, filial duty and patriotism, providing a composer with a great opportunity for expression.
Elton John, one of the most prodigious and talented songwriters of the day, meets the challenge respectably. The best of his melodic hooks in this score hold up well alongside some of his biggest hit songs. If the result is a hodgepodge — rock, Motown, gospel, reggae and more — it’s an entertaining hodgepodge that lifts Tim Rice’s intermittently inspired lyrics.
In the tiny genre of operas turned into musicals, “Rent” (based on Puccini’s “La Boheme”) still takes pride of place, offering more ingenuity and depth. But “Aida” certainly has a spark, and it’s ignited in typically all-out fashion by ArtsCentric.
With a set neatly designed by Ryan Haase, the production in the intimate theater at Motor House brings the audience in close to the action (there was quite a palpable bond between performers and patrons the night I caught the show).
Director Kevin McAllister keeps things flowing steadily and underlines the most passionate moments — notably the rousing, Act 1-closing anthem “The Gods Love Nubia” — with considerable intensity.
Heading the all-African-American cast is Awa Sal Secka, who captures Aida’s pride and inner nobility. She also sings the heck out of the music, whether at full-throttle or bringing everything down to an introspective level, using her deep and lush voice to keen effect.
Kanysha Williams shines as the vain Amneris, chewing up the scenery in “My Strongest Suit” (costume designer Larry Munsey rises to the occasion for this campy fashion show number). Williams doesn’t always sound comfortable when pushed into the upper register, but her singing is always full of flavor.
As Radames, Jo’Nathan Michael cuts a bold figure and, a few strained high notes aside, sings with considerable power.
There are varying levels of confidence and style in the rest of the cast, but no shortage of energy, especially when it comes to carrying out Shalyce “Shea” Hemby’s athletic choreography.
Music director Cedric Lyles assures a sturdy foundation for the production.
Like another small Baltimore company, Stillpointe Theatre, ArtsCentric has made its mark taking a thoughtful, vibrant approach to musicals. “Aida” adds considerably to that track record.