Dallas — Big, eager crowds applauded the big numbers of the big cast of talented, energetic singers, dancers and musicians propelling a concert version of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, performed by Uptown Players and the Turtle Creek Chorale at Dallas City Performance Hall, a big, bright venue with good seats and downtown glamour. John’s piano-rock vibes fill the hall and sweep us up in the love triangle of an enslaved Nubian princess who falls in love with her handsome Egyptian captor, who is about to marry the pharaoh’s daughter.
Verdi it’s not, for those familiar with the Italian opera, but this pop Aida has its glittering moments and they shine in this production, directed and choreographed by Ann Nieman, with musical direction by Kevin Gunter, assisted by Sean Baugh, Turtle Creek Chorale’s artistic director. All deserve kudos for the swift and graceful movement of their nearly 100-member cast to enhance the emotional center of the story the songs tell us.
The award-winning chorale and acting ensemble created a special synergy in previous collaborations with productions of Ragtime in 2013 and Sweeney Todd in 2014. They do it again with Aida, which kicks off Uptown Players’ 2016 season. This production follows the Disney production that opened on Broadway in 2000, with John’s narrative music, Tim Rice’s pop lyrics and a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and Henry Hwang.The concert version has minimal sets and conveys the place and time with terrific costumes by Suzi Cranford and some wonderfully evocative props by set designer Michelle Harvey, including colorful tents for a wedding and handsome flowing sails of Nubian ships storming the harbor. Such semi-staging is just enough to highlight the music in the show—and all the leads have strong voices and pack the dramatic power to keep us focused on the songs they sing.
Feleceia Benton is a forceful Aida, her mezzo voice throaty at the edges when she sings of her home in “The Past is Another Land.” Her Aida walks with deliberate, royal dignity, but she is also vulnerable, and her expressive arms and hands follow her voice, melodic and tender, as she sings of her love for her Egyptian soldier.
The Egyptian captain Radames is played by Kyle Igneczi, a compelling singer and actor, who got raves for his performance as a transgender rock singer in Uptown’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Igneczi’s Radames is a dashing adventurer, strutting his military prowess in “Fortune Favors the Brave.” Yet, his fateful love for Aida is evident in his eyes and voice in “Enchantment Passing Through.”
Most importantly, Benton and Igneczi‘s instant chemistry in the framing story, where they lock eyes in a modern museum looking at an Egyptian exhibition, sparks all their scenes. That physical attraction strengthens through the performance, shown by longing gestures and, to a powerful sexual desire—and love. Their duet of “Elaborate Lives” gives the somewhat trite lyrics a throbbing, romantic force.
Then there’s the third corner of the triangle—and the fun role in the show. Grace Neeley’s Amneris, the woman Radames is set to marry, is a feisty, funny, clothes-loving, insecure and hilarious mash-up of shallow California girl and spoiled Egyptian Princess. Her gorgeous mane of hair swats behind her, and her big, wide-ranging voice grows to pure excitement in “My Strongest Suit,” her ode to the joy of a wardrobe the size of a palace, and the delight in commanding a host of servants to dress her and accessorizes her for all occasions. Fashion rules and choreography energizes this bow to the woman for whom her outfit is herself.
Amneris, who opens the show as the Museum figure come to life singing “Every Story is a Love Story”, is also the character with enough smarts and heart to assess the value of Aida when Radames gifts the captive girl to his bride-to-be. In a funny, touching scene, the two women bond while Aida brushes Amneris’ fabled hair.
As the swirling plot moves from love to royal intrigue, we meet Ramades’ father Zoser, played by Jonathan Bragg, a strong baritone with a villainous scowl and ambitious overtones, especially singing “Like Father, Like Son,” a song pulsing with male ego and further energized by a quartet of male dancers baring their six-pack abs.
Love stories and stories of power are surrounded by courtiers, and members of the Turtle Creek Chorale, dressed in casual black and seated on risers behind the action, join in on big numbers, raising the roof with their superb combined voices. “The Gods Love Nubia,” the finale to Act I, resonates in our ears as we move to the lobby for intermission. They join in on other songs briefly, but I wished for more of this huge sound.
This is a Disney production, so as the old plot of Aida casts the doomed lovers to their death, the frame story here makes room for some equally fateful connection in the future. It’s hopeful, it’s short, and it’s, well, Disney. Actually, I’m good with all that in this lively, entertaining show.