Music by Elton John
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Suggested by the Verdi Opera
Directed by Stafford Arima
Starring Brad Anderson, Janine LaManna & Montego Glover
North Shore Music Theatre
Dunham Woods, Beverly MA / (978) 232-7200
Through Nov. 21

Reviewed by Will Stackman

An extravaganza more famous at the time for its menagerie than its music, the original Verdi opera of "Aida" was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. The Broadway commercial blockbuster produced by Disney shared the same attention to spectacle, but omitted the elephants. The Verdi work was last done in these parts by the Boston Opera in the converted movie palace now occupied by Disney's "The Lion King", where the cast is the menagerie. North Shore Music Theatre's current in the round production of Elton John and Tim Rice's pop rock adaptation is fauna-free, though a cat or two might help. Director Stafford Arima makes a effort to find the drama behind this simplistic psuedo-historical romance. He occasionally succeeds when focusing on the characters involved, largely because the title role is taken by Montego Glover, the best thing in last fall's premiere of "Memphis" at this theatre. If only costume designer Randall Klein hadn't been so "creative," blending echoes of antiquity with kitschy contemporary elements and fabrics. The staging and an efficient setting by Bill Stabile, who did "Memphis" last season and "Smokey Joe's Cafe before, deserved better. Arima, who includes NSMT's "Ragtime" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" among his substantial credits, deserves high marks for reimagining the show on a human scale, aided by an appealing leading lady with a truly impressive voice.

Praise is due as well to Janine LaManna, who was the brightest thing in "Seussical" when it previewed here in Boston several seasons ago. The role of Amneris which frames the action is basically thankless, but LaManna gives her all to this empty-headed character, achieving creditable dignity by the end. But a blond Egyptian princess is a bit hard to swallow. The biggest problem with this pop-rock album disguised as musical theatre is the adaptation. The original story is a melodramatic 19th century romance. Linda Wolverton, who previously did "Beauty and the Beast" for Disney, tried to create a "modern" version of this ersatz fable. Robert Falls, the original Broadway director, shares book credit and is probably most responsible for reducing the show down to a managable form. The first act is still too long. Just what "M. Butterfly" author, David Henry Wang brought to the project besides his bona fides is hard to detect. But whoever decided to make the Egyptians "white people" and the Nubians Black Africans is using race as an unnecessary metaphor. A really responsible contemporary production would cast for maximum diversity. Or even hire an entirely African American cast to eliminate this red herring.

However, North Shore Music Theatre deserves continuing credit for tapping a diverse pool of performers, some of whom return for productions from year to year. Derrick Baskin who plays Mereb, the hero's crafty Nubian slave, was also in "Memphis" last fall, as was J. Bernard Calloway playing Amanasro, Aida's father. Peripatetic Edward J. Barker, who's understudying both roles, was seen in "Memphis", last year's "Christmas Carol", "Ragtime" the season before, and last spring's "Kiss Me Kate". Also, one of the handmaidens, Manila-born Marie France Arcilla, , is understudying Amneris while theatre activist Q. Smith, playing Aida's Nubian friend Nehebka, is understudying the title role. Other members of the diverse ensemble have been seen before as well. The show also employs students from NSMT's Youth Performance Academy.

"Aida"'s leading man, Brad Anderson, previously attracted notice at NSMT in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and had a featured role on Broadway in "The Boy from Oz". He's a capable performer with a voice that blends well with both his co-stars, but there's no real chemistry with either woman, a fault of the script and possibly the direction. Canadian-trained director Arima, who previously did "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Ragtime" at NSMT, wants this show to be a love story, but without the power of operatic song to elevate its banal tale, this pop rock opera is more about infatuation, which makes the symbolic ending just a bit trite. Somewhat strangely, the role of Zoser, the hero's scheming father, seem lifted right out of "Aladdin" or some similar fantasy. John Schiappa makes the most of this villain, though his costume which adds a skirt to a 19th century military uniform is too blatant a metaphor. Veteran Boston actor and current Equity liaison James Bodge plays the Pharaoh with appropriate dignity, but his voluminous garb suggests the rotund ruler in the previously mentioned animated feature rather than a god-king of Egypt. Kirk Bookman's lighting is technically proficient, as one would expect from a NSMT hand with eight shows there, but slips into rock concert mode more than necessary. Less would be equally effective. The score and the music unfortunately speak for themselves, though music director/conductor Andrew Graham deserves praise for getting the best out his pit and the talented cast.

North Shore Music Theatre has developed a relationship with Disney as that entertainment giant tries to market its theatrical products beyond Broadway and the marginal touring market. They began by working on "Junior" versions of shows based on films such as "Aladdin", Cinderella, and "Jungle Book". Ten year old Jaclyn Sabogal appearing in this show has been in all three, as well as playing named roles around town. She's joined in this show by three other YPF students, Breanna & Tory Bradlee, plus teenager Nicholas Christopher. This local production of "Aida" is definitely superior to the road show that toured through Boston previously. NSMT also produced a respectable version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" this summer with Nikki Renee Daniels in the lead. Their current attractive production of "Aida" vindicates North Shore's practiced approach to humanizing such spectacles. Large scale musicals in this style however won't become competitive in NYC until several spaces capable of presenting them are created there by construction or renovation. A corporation with the resources of Disney might do well to consider such an investment and starting a trend.

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