AMERICAN FORK — Based on the popular Italian opera by Giuseppe Verdi of the same name, the musical Aida (with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice and a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and Henry David Hwang) is presented by the American Fork and Highland Arts Councils in a touching, yet imperfect manner.
The story is something of a classic love triangle. Aida (Mary Nelson) is a princess from Nubia (a region along the Nile river, which is located in northern Sudan and southern Egypt,) who is captured by an Egyptian captain, Radames (Christian Jones). Radames soon falls in love with Aida and saves her from a life of hard labor by instead offering her as a handmaiden to the Egyptian princess Amneris (Allison Books), his betrothed fiancée of nine years. The story unfolds with forbidden love, betrayal, and loyalty as the characters are forced to make difficult choices concerning their country, their people, and the desires of their hearts.
First, let me just say that all outdoor venues (as this one is) can be difficult to work with. I was surprised though that here the company was able to keep those difficulties and problems to a minimum. The biggest problem encountered was of course issues with the microphones, but overall they had a decent sound system, as well as a sufficient lighting system. I felt they used the space that they had to an advantage. The ambiance of this particular amphitheater was actually a quite nice backdrop for the show and added a pleasant element that would not have been there otherwise. Set designer Andrew Lloyd Hunsaker was able to accentuate this by creating a simple set design, complemented with high quality set pieces. The subtle lighting design by Mathew Jensen contributed to the shifting mood of the piece from scene to scene and kept the actors well lit in the dark. Costume designer Cindy Holindrake also did a good job incorporating the costumes into the world of the play and elevating the story by adding authenticity to the characters. All in all, the design elements worked well with each other and the story to make the action believable.
The acting, however, was somewhat hit and miss. The three leads, Nelson, Jones, and Books, truly carried the show and all were quite talented in their roles. All three have strong and capable voices and were able to make their respective musical numbers enjoyable. Admittedly, I was surprised that Nelson, playing Aida, appeared to be Asian and fair skinned, as the character is Egyptian and of African descent. Nelson pulls the role off exceptionally well though, as well as has the voice for it, so it was easily overlooked. (This is also the case because the other Nubian ensemble members were of different races.) Nelson was fierce and strong as Aida, as well as thoughtful and wistful. I could see her struggle with her responsibilities as a princess and a lover and feel sympathy for her, as is true with all three of these characters. My only complaint with Nelson is that her volume and diction could have been better. She became too quiet at times throughout the show (especially in the number “A Step Too Far” as I could barely hear her compared to the other two actors,) as well as made some words and phrases difficult to understand.
Nelson’s counterpart, Jones, kept up with her the entire time; the two actors complement each other very well and have good chemistry. Jones was believable as a barbaric captain in the beginning, and then Jones showed how Radames could undertake a journey where he softens and becomes caring. Thus, it was very easy to see his feelings for Aida, which were especially apparent in “Enchantment Passing Through.” And then it is a joy to see the sweet moment when they embrace in “Elaborate Lives.” Books, as Amneris, had a particularly strong voice and knew how to use it. She was a delight to listen to, as well as put on a great acting performance. Amneris is such a multi-dimensional character, and it was refreshing to see that be played well and translate to an audience. It is clear that Amneris is hiding under a mask, behind her cavernous feelings. The best moments of the show are when these three leads are on stage together such as in “Not Me,” and “A Step Too Far.”
Unfortunately, the big ensemble numbers were not as good. Although there were some strong ensemble members, I never felt that they were a cohesive whole, and this was a major flaw to the production. There were also many times the choreography was quite sloppy, and a little cheesy for my taste. This was most noticeable in “Fortune Favors the Brave,” “Another Pyramid,” and “Like Father, Like Son.” In these songs, the movements were not in sync with each other and appeared to be not well rehearsed. In “Another Pyramid,” it seemed like the ensemble had moments of aimless, unmotivated wandering and it was confusing. The title character in both these numbers is Radames father, Zoser, played by Jonathan Baker. Baker’s performance was better during the non-musical numbers, but in both these songs I felt he was too concentrated on the music and lacked energy and emotion. I also felt the vocal licks in “Another Pyramid” were excessive and required more meaning behind them. Baker does deserve applause, though, for his vocal ability and skill in hitting the difficult high notes those songs demand.
Also unfortunate were the weak ensemble vocals. It seemed like many cast members were timid and afraid to come in when they were supposed to. As a general rule, the entrances to the songs throughout the show were not on time and dropped. Some numbers, such as “Like Father, Like Son” did not seem polished vocally. The cast was not together and some parts were lost. This was also true in “My Strongest Suit.” This ensemble of girls was also much too quiet and hard to hear.
Director Andrew Lloyd Hunsaker, aside from some odd casting choices (one of which being that actor Jones looks much older than his father character,) was able to create beautiful images on stage with his actors. Most prominent of these moments were when the cast formed a semi-circle at the front of the stage in “The Gods Love Nubia” and when the cast was huddled together in groups during “Radames’ Letter,” as well as “Not Me,” where the lead characters formed a strong triangle. The transitions from scene to scene were also handled smoothly and efficiently, helping the show not to drag and keeping people invested.
Although there were some elements in the production that seemed a bit amateur, as I stated above, Aida was still a very touching production, and I was able to have an enjoyable experience. I would recommend this production to the average audience as there is plenty to appreciate in American Fork and Highland Arts Council’s portrayal of this bittersweet love story.