Cleburne — Ah, the love triangle: it’s the trope that won’t die. The setting may change (in Aida, our lovers pine in ancient Egypt), but the parameters stay pretty much the same: Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, other girl loves boy, boy doesn’t love other girl, and, typically, no one ends up happy. The lovers at the center of Aida, the Elton John and Tim Rice-conceived musical based on Verdi’s seminal opera of the same name, are no exception. But with all the inherent drama of story and setting, the real surprise of Aida is how bland and forgettable it is. Plaza Theatre Company, in its 13th season, leaves it all on the field in their production of the piece, showcasing some impressive local talent; but in the end, the cast can’t do much to elevate the material.
Our story opens in a museum, where a young man and woman shyly catch one another’s eye in a museum exhibit showcasing the treasures of ancient Egypt. A statue of Princess Amneris (Courtney Sikora) comes to life and sings the introductory ballad, “Every Story Is A Love Story,” transitioning the story to ancient Egypt, where Radames (Jacob Catalano), Captain of the Egyptian army, has just returned from his latest successful campaign against Nubia when his men capture a group of Nubian women. One of them fights back, snatching a sword away from one of Radames’ men and fighting them off until a threat to one of her companions subdues her. This, then, is our heroine, Aida (Kim Billins): princess of Nubia, now reduced to a slave. Radames, intrigued by her rebelliousness, has her attend to him while he bathes and dresses, and sparks fly between the two. Rather than sending her to the copper mines, Radames has her sent to serve as slave to his fiancée, the flighty, fashion-obsessed Princess Amneris, who’s grown rather impatient with her nine- year engagement to the wayward Radames. Radames’ father Zoser (director JaceSon P. Barrus) is also getting impatient for their marriage, and for Radames to take the throne, so he’s hatched a plot to speed things along by poisoning the Pharaoh (Jay Lewis), unbeknownst to Radames. Aida, keeping her origins a secret, runs into another Nubian slave, Mereb (Damond Cobin), who knew Aida and her family as a child and swears to keep her secret safe. That doesn’t last too long, and soon all the other Nubians are looking to Aida for hope and escape. Aida, caught between duty to her people and love for Radames, must decide what to do when her father is caught and sentenced to be executed by the Pharaoh, and Radames, confronted by the truth of who Aida is, must decide where his loyalties lie. Since this musical version is from Disney, the ending is more hopeful than the original opera.
If the material is somewhat lacking, the cast of Plaza Theatre Company’s production does their level best to bring life and pizazz to it, with uneven success. Kim Billins’ voice is gorgeous, and she shakes the rafters in Aida’s big solo number “Easy as Life” and the Gospel-inspired “The Gods Love Nubia.” But the smaller character moments—the character’s spirit and rebellious nature—feel muted at times, and the chemistry between Aida and Catalano’s Radames never quite gels, and without that, much of the show’s tension falls flat. The biggest surprise of the production may be Courtney Sikora’s Amneris, whose performance is simply the best thing onstage. Boasting not only a tremendous voice but comedic chops, her Princess Amneris channels, at times, Southern sorority belle and a sort of vampy Marilyn Monroe, but also grounds the character as she becomes more aware of the world around her, and the injustices her father and his politics have meted out. The (unfortunately) few scenes between Amneris and Aida are some of the best character moments for both actresses. Dallas native Damond Cobin brings operatic training and flair to his performance as the sly Mereb, a slave far wilier than his master. The show’s large ensemble cast—some presumably culled from the company’s fine arts education program Plaza Academy—sounds fantastic, and several actors were featured for their dance or gymnastic skills to great effect, though the choreography as a whole was disjointed and uncoordinated in several of the large group numbers.
Plaza Theatre’s mainstage home, Dudley Hall, is an intimate space at 276 seats—that’s still bigger than most mid-size theaters in DFW—and the production team deserves kudos for making the most out of that space (so kudos to set designer Parker Barrus). The stage incorporates a turntable center platform that adds energy to a number of scenes, and the coating of glitter over the stage added a touch of Vegas. But given the theater’s size, the live band (Geno Young on piano, Brandon Carlton on drums, Parker Barrus on electric/acoustic guitar, Ryan Siler on French horn, Howard Geisel on violin, Chris Wilson on second piano, and Laramie Durham on bass guitar), who performed with great flair, sometimes overwhelmed the individual actors even in spite of their body mics. And in a case of making a lot out of a little, the costuming was an impressive achievement, especially given the cast’s size; a catwalk moment dazzled with futuristic ensembles á la Gaga, and Amneris sports several gorgeous dresses (her initial peacock-inspired halter dress and a green column dress with a rainbow striped overlay were particular favorites), so props to costume designer Tina Barrus.
Enthusiasm carries the day at Plaza Theatre Company, who should be commended not only for their contributions to the local arts scene but for their education initiatives. Aida may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the show’s cast does everything in their power to sweeten this cup of chamomile, so if that’s your blend, enjoy.