LOGAN — This year, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre gives audiences the rare opportunity to see two versions of the love story Aida: Verdi’s 1871 opera Aida and the 2000 stage musical. On Friday, July 7, I saw the latter show, which was under the direction of John De Los Santos. With music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang, the musical version of Aida is a sensation that modern audiences can rock out with while discovering this timeless love story.
Set in Ancient Egypt, Aida (played by Sharaé Moultrie) is a Nubian princess who was captured by an Egyptian war party led by Captain Radames (played by Charlie Tingen). Forced into slavery, Aida is given as a present to the Egyptian princess Amneris, the captain’s betrothed (played by Adrien Swensen). However, Aida has captured the eye of Radames and the two find themselves confiding in each other and quickly falling in love. With the impending wedding between Radames and Amneris and the capture of the Nubian king, the love triangle is set on a path that can change everything in Egypt and Nubia.
There are some differences in the musical story from the opera. The musical develops the characters of Radames and Aida and explains why the two fell in love. Unlike the opera, which begins with Radames already in love with the slave Aida and never really explains why she would have captured his heart instead of Amneris. In the opera, Amneris is much more conniving and jealous than the sweet and frivolous princess in the musical. The opera does feature epic scenes of triumphant victory and Egyptian temple ceremonies and sticks closer to real Egyptian culture than the modernized and pop styled musical.
Moultrie was a shining star of brilliance in the role of Aida with a voice that was flawless through the emotional and heartfelt song “The Past is Another Land” and a powerful force in “The Gods Love Nubia.” Together Moultrie and Tingen create a magical description of sailing through Nubia in “Enchantment Passing Through” and a breathtaking show stopper in “Written in the Stars.” Tingen and Moultrie complemented each other compellingly drawing me into their love story. Tingen’s powerful vibrato reverberates through “Elaborate Lives” as he pleads for Aida to be with him.
The introduction of Princess Amneris was delightful, as Swensen plays a ditzy blonde princess who only cares about her looks in “My Strongest Suit.” Her quick change into a sequined pink dress and an added sizzle portrayed a flirtatious princess that was vibrant with character. However, Swensen shows the depth of Amneris’s character development as she sings “I know the truth and it haunts me,” with pensive remorse.
Mereb (played by Lance Raikes) was very charismatic and bright, especially in the song “How I Know You.” The quartet with Moultrie, Tingen, Raikes, and Swensen in “Not Me” was energetic with Radames, Aida, and Amneris singing about how wonderful love can be — and Mereb seeing the approaching disaster singing, “Oh no; this can never be.”
Lee Gregory played the role of Zoser. Although Gregory was a phenomenal singer and actor portraying his character’s artful scheming to put his son Radames on the throne, his operatic style was discordant with the overall rock feel of the show. Additionally, much of his diction was lost in “Like Father Like Son” at precisely the same time that the captions projected above the stage malfunctioned. As a result, the lyrics of the song were not comprehensible without a prior knowledge of the music.
The chorus shone in a powerful rendition of “The Gods Love Nubia” and in an intricate tribal dance, choreographed by de los Santos, in the “Dance of the Robe.” However, there could be more volume from the men in “Fortune Favors the Brave;” the powerful army scene was weak beacuse the vocals felt timid and reserved. Perhaps this volume imbalance could be due to some technical difficulties. This likely can be easily tweaked. Greatly complementing the evening was the presence of the live orchestra. Conductor James M. Bankhead brought life and energy to the beginning of the show by putting on some groovy Elton John glasses. Nothing enhances a wonderful production more than a talented live orchestra.
Scenic designer Patrick Larsen filled the stage with a large wooden pyramid frame that rotated to create not just a pyramid, but a ship, a jail, and a throne room. The large pyramid was framed by two sets of panels with Egyptian hieroglyphics. A visual delight of the evening was created by lighting designer John Mitchell with a large setting sun that lit with an orange spotlight set against a rich blue backdrop of an evening sky.
The costumes designed by Jason Orlenko were absolutely stunning and gave a bright modern touch to ancient Egypt. Amneris’s costumes were especially beautiful. The turquoise and gold costume of a royal Egyptian leader that Amneris wore in the opening and closing scenes was gorgeous, with the tall headdress and long cape. The fashion show during “My Strongest Suit” was spectacular with vibrant dresses in many colors and outfits made to impress. However, the wig on Pharaoh made him look more like Doc Brown from Back to the Future than a mighty Egyptian ruler.
Aida has long been a favorite musical of mine, and this production at UFOMT exceeded my high expectations. Moultrie is as talented an actress as any on Broadway, and is a treat to see her as Aida. Audiences should head to Logan for a spectacular show with Elton John’s Aida — and then stick around to see the source material of Verdi’s opera.