For a 1,852-performance Broadway musical smash, Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida: The Timeless Love Story has had few if any major SoCal stagings in the years since its 2000 Broadway debut, just one reason to catch Moonlight Stage Productions’ sensational big-stage revival under Vista skies.

Like the Verdi opera that inspired it, John & Rice’s Aida takes us back in time to ancient Egypt where a handsome young army captain named Radames (Richard Bermudez) has just captured a group of Nubian women, one of whom, a majestic beauty named Aida (Daebreon Poiema), so captivates him that he sends her, not to the copper mines that would otherwise seal her fate, but to serve as handmaiden to his mirror-loving fiancée Princess Amneris (Bets Malone).

Amidst the political intriguing of his father, Chief Minister Zoser (Bill Ledesma), to make his son 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 doesn’t know his Verdi, though far be it for this reviewer to spoil the suspense.

Despite some stilted dialog straight out of a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic (book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang), the trio have quite a love story to tell, and with Rice and John’s words and music running the gamut from reggae to Motown to gospel to pop, audiences are never far from another showstopper.

Moonlight’s Aida features a gorgeous modern-art-deco-meets-ancient-Egyptian production design just right for its Elton John-meets-Giuseppe Verdi roots and whenever ensemble members launch into one of director-choreographer John Vaughan’s quirky discogyptian Club Nubia dance moves or one of John and Rice’s eclectic bunch of pop songs, Aida takes particularly high flight.

Fierce and fiery in the title role, Poiema never lets us forget that Aida The Musical is no Mandingo-style master-rapes-slave tale but the story of two equals, both of royal blood, and when Poiema launches into the soaring high notes of “The Past Is Another Land” or the powerful, gut-wrenching “Easy As Life” in a voice that may have no Southland equal, expect shivers.

Bermudez’s striking combination of leading man looks, fitness-mag physique, and classic Broadway tenor make him the perfect choice to play the handsome, heroic Radames, whether belting out “Fortune Favors The Brave” or blending voices with Poiema in “Enchantment Passing Through,” “Elaborate Lives,” or “Written In The Stars.”

Southland treasure Malone has never been more stunning than she is as Amneris, from the stirring “Every Story Is A Love Song” to the bright, bubbly (and oh-so-Motowny) “My Strongest Suit,” and when the ditzy diva acquires a maturity we did not know was in her in John and Rice’s most gorgeous ballad “I Know The Truth,” Malone’s star turn provokes chills and tears in equal measure.

As Radames’ servant (and loyal Aida follower) Mereb, Terrance Spencer shows off his own power tenor in “How I Know You” and joins voices with Poiema, Bermudez, and Malone in the glorious four-part “Not Me.”

Ledesma’s deliciously evil schemer of a Zoser sells the reggae-influenced “Another Pyramid” and a very Elton Johnish “Like Father, Like Son,” the latter opposite Bermudez, and full-cast harmonies in “Fortune Favors The Brave” and “The Gods Love Nubia” are as good as it gets.

Song-and-dance aces Marqel Edward Clayton, Deborah Fauerbach, Desiree Noel Gillespie, Reggie Hutchins, Gabrielle Jackson, Erin Li, Milan Magaña, Jessica Mason, Sebastian Montenegro, Koda Montoya, Joy Newbegin, Pierre-Daniel Petit Frère, Marco Puente, Kenny Ramos, Janissa Rose, Chad Takeda, E.Y. Washington, Morie Williams, and Arianna Young get a virtually nonstop vocal-dance workout as ministers, soldiers, Egyptian men, palace women, nubians, guards, and more, with Jackson’s Nehebka, Williams’s Amonasro, and Greg Nicholas’s Pharaoh delivering solid cameos.

Moonlight wisely eschews a “historically accurate” production design for Music Theatre Wichita’s sleek steel-paneled history museum set whose rear-wall projections transport us from palace to riverbank to boudoir, lit with Technicolor brilliance and infinite variety by Jean-Yves Tessier, MTW’s eye-catching costumes blending the ancient with the modern, and never more so than in the runway-ready design stunners of “My Strongest Suit.”

Jim Zadai’s sound design adeptly mixes amped vocals and the Moonlight orchestra under the expert baton of musical director Lyndon Pugeda.

Carlotta Malone, Roslyn Lehman, and Renetta Lloyd (costume coordination and execution), Bonnie Durben (properties coordination), Gabe Nunez (makeup design), Peter Herman (wig design), and Rose (fight choreography) merit their own kudos.

Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Eden Michel is assistant stage manager. Fauerbach is assistant to the choreographer. Lauren Paris is production assistant.

Surmounting clunky dialog with a love story that proves timeless indeed, John & Tim Rice’s Aida makes for a memorable evening under starry Moonlight skies. You may go for the songs, but by the time Amneris reprises “Every Story Is A Love Story,” expect to have been moved to tears and cheers.

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Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
June 18, 2017
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography


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