SANDY — Last Thursday night, I attended the grand opening gala for the new Hale Center Theatre in Sandy City. It was perfectly lovely, as evenings go. Catered food, a new statue, and loads of men trying not to trod on women’s evening gowns delivered a sense of elegance and lavishness. The governor and other such dignitaries gave superlative-laced speeches, and an eternal flame was lit. Minor celebrities peppered the crowd: Michael Ballam fanned himself in the corner near the piano; Carmen Rasmussen wandered to and fro with her husband, the governor’s son. At last, the new theater was opened up and we filed in.
For the premiere production in the Mountain America Performing Arts Center, Hale Centre Theatre seemed bound and determined to show off everything the new theater can do. Luckily, they picked the right show for it, as Aida lends itself to over-the-top theatricality and dramatic staging. The adaptation of Verdi’s opera by Elton John and Tim Rice is rife with sweeping soul ballads and funky, colorful character songs that allow for opulent visuals and acrobatic choreography, costuming, and set pieces.
Set in ancient Egypt, Aida tells the story of a Nubian princess, named Aida, who is captured by the Egyptian captain Radames who is the son of the master builder and betrothed to the Egyptian crown princess Amneris. Their ill-fated love story builds with innumerable complications brought on by politics and treachery, which all comes to a head in grand and tragic operatic fashion.
I have been a fan of Rice and John’s take on this story for quite a while, so I was excited to see Hale’s rendition, and this production fulfilled my expectations. The highlight was the theatricality and staging, my favorite example of which was the setting for “Elaborate Lives” in which Aida and Radames sing to each other in fountain. The scene was luxurious and spectacular, but the actors managed to balance it with tender intimacy and more believable sensuality than I’ve ever seen on a Hale stage. Indeed, Kandyce Marie Gabrielsen and Casey Elliot showcased a level of natural chemistry that had me completely sold on Aida and Radames as a romantic couple. Admittedly, my only other experience of a live production of Aida was at the high school level, so having two mature and luminously talented actors play the roles made all the difference in this production. Marie and Elliot are formidable singers and believable actors who were also quite deft at elevating the abilities of the cast members around them. Amy Shreeve-Keeler as Amneris and Christopher Curlett as the slave Mereb had soft, lovely voices that were not quite the powerhouse of their fellow leads, but Marie and Elliot skillfully pulled their voices down to blend with the other singers.
Another performance of note was Jared Haddock as the scheming Zoser. Costume designer Jennifer Stapley-Taylor had him in a stylistic wig that was a little odd but somehow worked given Haddock’s vibrant, sizzling rock-star portrayal of the treacherous master builder. Haddock drew on Tom Waits-like guttural tones that added some color to his vocals and life to his character.
On the subject of costumes, Stapley-Taylor had her work cut out for her in dressing Nubians and Egyptians from all stations and backgrounds. Everything, from the color-coordinated rags of the Nubian slaves to the flashy garb of Amneris and her handmaidens, was carefully tailored and specifically selected to fit each scene, blend with the scenery, and show off the dazzling glitz and glamour that Hale Centre Theatre has at their disposal. One of the highlights of Aida in costuming was during “Strongest Suit,” Amneris’s show-stopping number commenting on the importance she places on her appearance. A fashion show with dangling aerialist paparazzi and women in sensational gowns made for a decidedly awe-inspiring spectacle.
I can only imagine the challenge brought by directing a show wherein carefully executed staging is key, and in that respect Dave Tinney did a marvelous job. The spectacle and the power of the show was apparent in many scenes, but I felt that Tinney’s direction could have built up to the big moments better. For example, in both “The Dance of the Robe” and “The Gods Love Nubia,” the blocking, acting, or choreography needed a gradual crescendo in order to draw out the electricity in these already fire-fueled numbers. There is no shortage of long-held belts and dramatic moments in Aida, but all too often I felt that an organic build-up could have added emotional power.
All in all, the spectacle and drama of Aida should be enough to attract audiences even outside of the excitement over a new theater. It is a wonderful story elegantly told, and I was very glad to be there to witness it.