OREM — If you’ve never been to an outdoor show at the SCERA, I will say two things right now. First, if you plan to go see their current offering, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, and you should go, dress appropriately (i.e., comfortably) and take a jacket. It’s outdoors on a big, grass hill, and it’s summer in Utah. There. Will. Be. Wind. Second—and more positively—there are no bugs to speak of.
To review this musical, I took along a trusted, dear, teenage friend, Penny, who is an Aida freak. I’m saying right now, she LOVED the show, as did I. Because her school recently performed this show, and she was in it, she was familiar with all the songs, what the characters “should” look like, how they “should” sound. She said this show is “epic.” High praise from a very particular, talented, and opinionated girl.
My first real comment on the show is not a good one, however. I will say it and get it out of the way, but please note. What happened? My guest and I were given General Admission tickets and we paid ($1.00 each) for chairs. However, I didn’t plan to arrive remarkably early. So, we sat in the back. The very back and far from the stage. So I won’t be able to comment on how the makeup was or on any facial expressions of the actors—I was way too far away. As Penny said, she needs to see the actors’ faces to really get into the show. So, let this be a lesson to you. Bring your own chairs (which is allowed) and get to the amphitheater early.
The show begins with an introduction by one of the SCERA staff. He thanked the sponsors, all that jazz, and I’ll admit, it went on a bit long. Then we got into the show. The set (designed Travis Coyne) is gorgeous, stately, and very Egyptian. I was rather taken with how authentic and perfect the color of all the stonework was. I know it’s a painted set, but I was convinced it was Egyptian stone—my suspension of disbelief was complete—delightfully so.
I’m a sucker for pretty costumes, and Deborah Bowman’s creations were dazzling. She used lots of color and glittery fabric and trim where it was needed (such as with the Egyptian princess Amneris and her entourage). On the other hand, there were lots of drab fabrics that still looked rather delicious nonetheless for the Nubian slaves. The Egyptian guards’ tops made of a silvery black fabric was effective, like shimmery metal but a lot easier to move in, I’m sure. I also thought that the Pharaoh’s costume was amazing. I don’t think I can describe it well enough to give it justice, but it had color, flair, and detail—and it was posh. For an old guy who was sick, he sure dressed great. The show is worth seeing just to get a look at his costume.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Aida a star-crossed lovers’ tale that really has few surprises until the end. The title character is a Nubian Princess who is made a slave. Her captor, the Egyptian captain Radames, gives Aida to his fiancée, the Egyptian princess Amneris and the two princesses make friends (one of my favorite stories in the show and in this production, the chemistry between the two actresses is phenomenal). But then Aida and Radames fall in love. Radames’ father Zoser encourages Radames to marry Amneris for political purposes, even after he realizes his son loves Aida.
One of Aida’s storylines that Penny and I both found remarkable is that Radames isn’t a very nice chap in the beginning—before meeting the strong, regal, and loving Aida. Yes, he’s a soldier and is doing his job, but he really is a pretty selfish man. This wasn’t as well-defined in this show as I’ve seen in other productions. But Radames’ transformation into someone who sacrifices all for his true love and becomes an honorable man is very unmistakably depicted in this show. I got sort of gulpy and teary as Radames proclaims that he wants to be strong and good like Aida. Radames is played Adam Gardner and even typing his name makes my fingers a little weak. His perfect pitch, the emotionality of his songs, his acting, his movement—he is amazing. According to his bio, Gardner is back onstage after a five-year hiatus. I am making a personal request that he keep performing with no more breaks. Utah County benefits from talent like this.
Aida, the Nubian princess, played remarkably well by Latoya Rhodes, is graceful, beautiful, and she sings achingly well. Rhodes’s first song was a little rough, but as the play progressed, she grew—in character, pitch, tone, and volume. The leads’ singing duets also progressed—from anger, to tentative interest, to deep love. The actors showed this development —making the unlikely story totally believable, which of course makes it all the more heart-rending. Their harmonies were lovely.
Alec Powell’s Mereb (Radames’ personal Nubian slave) is a great big good actor and has a voice that transfixed us. Up until his first number, sung with Aida, “How I Know You,” the show dragged a bit. I turned to Penny when Powell began to sing and said, “The show has now officially started.” I will say, I wish that Powell had gotten the timing of Mereb’s funny lines a little sharper. But his singing—sublime.
Sometimes directors cast their own offspring and it ruins the show. I’ve seen this happen. Amneris, played by directors Kathryn and Howard Little’s daughter Tanika Little, deserves the part and did such a good job. I don’t care if she is the directors’ kid. In the first scene of the show, she is dauntingly regal, but then proceeds to prance and skip in her solo “My Strongest Suit” to the audience’s delight. Amneris is a rather superficial character, more concerned with her wardrobe than any inner depth for most of the show, and I loved Little’s portrayal. She can sing, dance, and in her song, with its numerous costume changes, each one more garish than the last, pulled off of her one by one, she does this with panache, style, and probably a lot of practice! The last scene where Amneris stands up to her father and makes a difficult but compassionate decision is very powerful. I get shivers thinking about it.
Amneris’s entourage, who dance in “My Strongest Suit,” is stellar, jumping and romping all over the stage. Choreographer Rick Robinson and assistant choreographers Kelsey Skousen and Chaz Bodily did a beautiful job. However, the part of the song where many of the women model clothing was a little slow.
The other characters were all well-played and had good voices. The standouts were Rebecca Roberts, who plays Aida’s friend Nehebka. Roberts has some pipes and I will look for her in upcoming productions. She doesn’t have half enough singing here. The other actor we loved is Rick Priddis as Radames’ dastardly father, Zoser. He has great movement and sings wonderfully well. Ed Eyestone’s Pharaoh was a little weak—he was supposed to be sick, but seemed hale and hearty until his last scene, almost like he forgot he was supposed to be ailing. King Amonasro was played by understudy Emmett Gill, and he did a fair job. Gill spoke a little too quickly and I didn’t understand him completely, but I could tell he and his daughter Aida had a close relationship and their parting at the end of the show was poignant.
In an outdoor show like this, combined with that pesky Utah wind, I imagine it’s hard to get the sound right. But SCERA’s staff at the shell theater does. There was one crackly mike for about five seconds, and a few actors’ embraces got a little mike squishy, but we could hear every note from the score and the singers, clearly and brilliantly. Sound engineer Kendall Bowman knows how to make the SCERA sing, literally.
Every single dance number that had only male dancers was pretty disastrous. I say this because some of the dancers were awesome, some not so much. It was painful to watch. The best dance of the show, “The Gods Love Nubia,” is the simplest dance and it is by far the most powerful. In fact, this is one of the best numbers in the show.
The other storyline of the show, the theme of slavery, is hard to write about. I found myself pondering on the whole idea of submission and subjugation, and it hurts. Aida is a love story, but its darker theme of slavery is present, and one that is worthy of considering. For me, it highlighted not only my own blessed life, but the knowledge that there are millions who are less fortunate in our world than I. I thought about: what slavery means and our own shameful slave-holding past. What having your own power to decide means. What being enslaved can mean to anybody in any circumstance. I’m sure all who go see this show will be impacted by this poignant, painful subject.
Finally, as I’ve alluded to throughout my review, the ending is sweet and hopeful. Really, it is. I (sort of) teased Penny that I wanted to leave during intermission because I didn’t want to see the sad part of the show, and she cried, “No! You can’t leave! You have to see the awesome ending!” I knew she was right, and of course I didn’t leave. You have to wait it out and witness the hopeful final scene.
Overall, I would recommend Aida as a must see. But please, don’t bring your toddlers. They just run all over the field and ruin the show for others. But this show has impact and those who experience it will come away changed. For the better.