At any time in the 20th Century, if you’d asked a theatergoer to say the first word to pop into his or her head upon hearing the name Aida, chances are it would have been “opera” or “Verdi” or some other classical music reference. Then came the year 2000, and the smash Broadway hit of the same name, and a whole new bunch of word associations were born—composer Elton John, lyricist Tim Rice, original star Heather Headley, replacement stars Toni Braxton and Deborah Cox, “Written In The Stars” (the hit single by John and LeAnn Rimes), or any number of more contemporary references. These days, when you talk about Aida, more than Verdi’s heroine comes to mind.

 That’s why, when I tell you that I saw Aida last night, I have to be very specific. It was Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre’s production of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida: The Timeless Love Story that I got the chance to see for the third time, following the First National Tour at the Ahmanson in 2001 and another touring production at the Pasadena Civic in 2005. Though Aida by Candlelight doesn’t match either of those, I enjoyed getting reacquainted with the Nubian princess as seen through pop music eyes.

 Following its contemporary opening scene (one which resumes with new resonance at the show’s finale), Elton John & Tim Rice flash us back in time to ancient Egypt, from which point the storyline follows Verdi’s original fairly closely. Handsome young army captain Radames captures a group of Nubian women on the way back home, and one of them, a beauty named Aida, so captivates him that he sends her to be handmaiden to his fiancée Princess Amneris rather than to certain death in the copper mines. Amidst the political intriguing of his father, Chief Minister Zoser, who is bent on his son becoming the next Pharaoh, Radames finds himself falling for the bold and beautiful Nubian, who turns out to be a princess in her own right. Anyone who thinks that the path to true love will be smooth hasn’t seen the original opera, though far be it for this reviewer to spoil the suspense.

In one of John’s and Rice’s catchiest songs, Amneris sings that “dress has always been my strongest suit. Among Aida’s strongest suits are the dozen and a half songs written by the aforementioned composers, running the gamut from reggae to Motown to gospel to pop. Aida’s book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang is rather more problematic, with stilted dialog straight out of a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic and sudden tonal shifts. Still, Aida became a 1,852-performance Broadway smash from 2000 to 2004, and spawned productions the world over, so clearly its production team was doing something right.

 There are a number of reasons to catch Candlelight’s revival of the international hit, first and foremost of which are its cast’s fine vocal performances. Gorgeous Amber Thompson (Aida), charismatic Adam Lubicz (Radames), and luscious Lindsay Martin (Amneris) get the show’s most memorable songs, and there are a bunch of them. Thompson’s voice soars in “The Past Is Another Land” and provokes chills in the powerful, gut-wrenching “Easy As Life.” Australian Lubicz has the rocker’s pipes needed to belt out “Fortune Favors The Brave,” and he and Thompson join voices to stirring effect in “Enchantment Passing Through,” “Elaborate Lives,” and “Written In The Stars.” Martin opens the show with “Every Story Is A Love Song,” sung with power and grace, and follows it with the bright, bubbly, and oh-so-Motowny “My Strongest Suit,” but it is her rendition of John and Rice’s most gorgeous ballad “I Know The Truth” that got tears streaming from this reviewer’s eyes. Wesley Mosteller (as Aida’s sassy fellow countryman Mereb) has powerful pipes too, which he displays opposite Thompson in the duet “How I Know You” and opposite all three leads in the glorious four-part “Not Me.” John LaLonde (Zoser) has rich, resonant vocal chops as well, which he reveals in the reggae-influenced “Another Pyramid” and opposite Lubicz in the very Elton Johnish “Like Father, Like Son.”

 Ensemble vocals in “Fortune Favors The Brave,” “My Strongest Suit,” “Like Father, Like Son,” and “The Gods Love Nubia” in particular reveal a musically strong supporting cast: Deejay Bird (Amonasro), Miguel Cardenas, Stephanie Garrobo, Monica Quinn Gonzales (a standout Nehebka), Alexis Herrera, Ceisley M. Jefferson, Sonya Lincoln, Jazz Madison, James Oronoz, Eric W. Taylor, Jenaé Thompson, Christopher Van Etten (a very effective Pharoah), Susanna Vaughan, Shafik Wahhab, Brenna Wahl, and Tim Woods.

Whiz musical director Allen Everman shares credit for the abovementioned vocal performances, which the cast deliver to prerecorded instrumental tracks (provided by The MT Pit L.L.C.), which sound close to live on the first-rate Candlelight sound system.

 A bevy of colorful costumes, combining the look of Ancient Egypt and Africa with a contemporary flair, are provided by Maine State Music Theatre Costumes, most notably the Lion King-inspired fashion show that accompanies “My Strongest Suit.” Matt Schleicher lights Riverside Community College’s set and properties design with dramatic flair. Cliff and Kat Senior’s wigs are quite well designed too.

Still, certain aspects of Elton John &  Tim Rice’s Aida are tough nuts for a director-choreographer to crack, and here Paul David Bryant is only partially successful. (Janet Renslow is assistant to the director.) The very tonal shifts that make the show’s Original Cast Recording so diverse and satisfying present far greater challenges when telling Aida’s story on stage. The quirky moves of Zoser and his ministers in “Another Pyramid” seem out of place without the directorial vision that made the original production such a success. Nubian dance numbers, on the other hand, work quite well on the Candlelight stage, perhaps because they are rooted in a more realistic time and place.

Dialog scenes end up the most problematic, particularly for Byrd and Mosteller, whose background is almost exclusively in song and dance. Still, most cast members could have benefitted from greater directorial attention to spoken word scenes. Had Bryant taken a “straight play” approach to Aida’s dialog sequences, story arcs would be more effective, relationships stronger and better motivated, and the production more thoroughly successful.

 Still, following one of Candlelight Pavilion’s scrumptious meals (cocktails, appetizers, entrees, and desserts are to die for and the service courteous and attentive), Aida at the Candlelight makes for one delectable evening of fine cuisine and tuneful musical theater.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
April 21, 2012
Photos: Isaac James Creative

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