Farmer's Branch — It has been some time since Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, adapted from Verdi’s 1871 opera, has toured or been on Broadway. The show, which premiered in 2000, has unfortunately remained in the shadow of its authors’ other big Disney musical, The Lion King. So I am glad to see this show have a passionately energetic and delightfully entertaining production at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch. The musical breathes new life into the classic tale of the captured slave Aida and her doomed love affair with Radames, a captain of the Egyptian army who is in line to be Pharaoh.
While the story’s army battles and pyramids may cry out for the grandeur and pageantry of a massive production in an opera house, Wendy Renée Searchy’s imaginative set design aptly meets the challenge of re-creating this world in a small theatrical venue. An implied pyramid inscribed with Hieroglyphic panels that spin, move and fold down anchors the main stage. Two screens with projections take us from scene to scene and a clever sliding floor reveals sand makes a nice way of expressing outdoors. There were moments I wished for more space to let the actors have more room to spread out. Projections and well-executed lighting design by Cassonra Plybon-Harbin move you from place to place, scene to scene. The lighting design worked best in the smaller scenes where a few lights set the performers free to tell this story.
Aida also calls for grand and beautiful costumes and designer Victor Newman Brockwell supplies them quite admirably. The gowns run from elegant and noble to flashy and campy in moments of much-needed comedy. Amneris, the princess and daughter of Pharaoh, provided much of the comic relief of the show. She is played by Danielle Estes with ample voice and delightful wit and her gowns are stunners. Her number “My Strongest Suit” is charming and funny while the anachronistic nods to ballroom culture spice up the song well. Ultimately she wants the love of Radames but that is not to be. Neglect turns to tragedy and Estes’ Amneris shines as brightly as her gowns when it counts.
Amneris is betrothed for nine years to the always-off-in-battle Radames, played here by Rare Orion, who sings and performs the role with a believable passion that makes his chemistry with Aida work. The role was originally played by Adam Pascal who was famous for his Roger Davis in Rent. To his credit, Rare Orion doesn’t try to sound like Pascal and he really comes into his own voice well in the second act. The duet “Written in the Stars,” one of the hit songs from the show and a tune you might recognize from the radio, has Aida and Radames questioning their fate and stating their love. Aida is sung with such clarity, passion and beauty by Imani Ani that there are moments when she towers over the other performers. Her lovely rendering of “Easy as Life” is worth the price of admission by itself. She is alone on stage knowing that she has chosen to betray her lover Radames in order to free her father, the King of Nubia, and liberate her people. As Aida, Amani Ani delivers a performance that equals the weight of the role.
Every operatic spectacle needs a good villain and Zoser is devilishly played by Craig Boleman. His wicked grin, classic song and dance man skills, and effusive energy nearly have you cheering for a man who is poisoning the hapless Pharaoh. Thankfully the evil Zoser gets found out yet this justice ironically helps seal the fate of the doomed lovers Radames and Aida.
Spinning all of these elements together is director and Firehouse Theatre artistic director Derek Whitener. He has balanced the comic, campy and hammy moments of comedy with the epic tragedy this story weaves. Sprightly, energetic choreography by Quintin Jones moves the performers through their paces and the dance numbers with Nubians, soldiers and the ladies of Amneris chamber are standouts. I would have loved a larger stage to accommodate larger dance numbers. Yet even cramped together the performers moved with the grace and power of their roles.
The band carried the synthesizer-laden score well and sounded larger than their numbers suggest. Musical direction by Brina Palencia had the cast feeling confident and singing well. The songs “Elaborate Lives,” “Like Father Like Son” and “Every Story is a Love Story” were sung beautifully and got abundant applause from the raucous crowd.
I saw the show on opening night and it was executed well with some minor technical flaws that should be worked out by now. For a big show that is squeezed into the tiny space of the Firehouse Theatre, it mostly works. Aida tells another story of love at first sight. Hear Imani Ani sing in it and you will understand why I fell for her performance, and why this story has been retold so many times through the ages.