“ELTON JOHN & TIM RICE'S AIDA,” through May 4, SCERA Center for the Arts, 745 S. State St., Orem (801-225-ARTS or scera.org)**; running time: 2 hours, 10 min.** (one intermission)
OREM — “Aida” opened this weekend at the SCERA Center for the Arts, and I’m seeing stars.
I’m not seeing stars simply because the story revolves around two extremely star-crossed lovers, but because the leads truly lit up the stage.
The SCERA’s production, directed by Matthew Herrick, features a few leads worthy of professional theater, with charm, soul and pipes that made me much more willing — even happy — to forgive the usual gaffes that inevitably accompany community theater.
Before I go on, I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot for “Aida.” I entered the theater Friday waxing nostalgic, remembering that “Aida” was one of the first musicals I ever saw live. Not only that, but I sang “My Strongest Suit” with my high school show choir. And OK, maybe I blasted the soundtrack in my car for months as a teen, belting the songs with the windows down.
For those, um, less familiar than I, here’s the quick and easy, spoiler-free summary: Radames is an Egyptian captain who’s engaged to Pharoah’s daughter, Amneris. Aida is princess of Nubia, the land Egypt is fighting and trying to conquer. Aida’s been captured and taken as a slave when she meets Radames, who saves her to give her as a gift to Amneris. Radames doesn’t have a clue who Aida really is, but as the two end up spending time together they fall in love. Meanwhile, Radames’ dad is slowing poisoning the Pharoah, and Radames and Amneris are just days away from getting hitched. As you can imagine, things become really … complicated. After all, as Amneris sings in the first song, “this is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate.”
It’s a drama of operatic proportions. And actually, it is an opera. The musical was adapted by Elton John and Tim Rice — the duo that delivered the music for Disney’s “The Lion King” — from Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian opera of the same name. “Aida” first debuted as a Broadway musical in 2000.
Friday’s opening night started out strong when Beatriz Melo as Amneris sang the opening number. She’s got stage presence for days, and her bright red hair and sparkling dress didn’t hurt. If she was any indication of the rest of the cast, I knew I was in for a treat.
The show got a little rocky when Tyson Wright as Radames entered with his team of soldiers. There was some stilted, stiff dialogue. Wright then sang his first solo and sounded nervous and strained, though he’s got a nice voice when he’s in the middle of his range. Then we met Aida, and there was some awkward hand-to-hand stage combat, and I said to myself, “Oh no.”
Then Aida sang, and all my doubts melted away. “The Past is Another Land” is a song I’d often skip, but Jalyn Macedone’s rendition captivated me. And that’s how I felt the rest of the show. Macedone commanded the stage every time her bare feet set foot there (which, by the way, was the entire show; she never had shoes on). As Aida, she was passionate, conflicted and strong, doing justice to a role once filled by stars like Deborah Cox, Toni Braxton and Michelle Williams.
Aida’s slave friend, Mereb, as played by Kiirt Banks, was the other shining star. Banks had a great voice and the role seemed effortless for him. His lines came out like he was speaking the words himself, rather than repeating memorized lines. He brought new life to a character I’d never really loved before.
The other leads did a good enough job, but anytime Aida, Amneris or Mereb were on stage, my attention was on them.
Of course, there were moments it was clear I wasn’t on Broadway.
Radames and Aida lacked a bit of chemistry and Radames didn’t quite do justice to my favorite song, “Elaborate Lives.” And yes, Radames and the Pharoah wore Doc Marten-style sandals to pass as their Egyptian footwear. And maybe some of the lights went out too soon and Amneris’ mic cut out for a critical scene. And there were moments where the choreographed dancing was less than perfect. So what if Aida’s symbolic headpiece didn’t really fit on her head? And now that I think about it, most of the second half didn’t have much of a set.
Somehow, though, I’m OK with that.
The show wasn’t perfect. But what it lacked in production, it made up for in star power and heart. Even the chorus had some standouts, including the guard with the long blonde hair who danced with so much commitment. The mistakes I saw became more endearing as the show went on because the cast was just so darn likeable. And there was something else: The show made me remember how much I love community theater.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. At intermission, I talked with the lady sitting next to me, who also happens to be an “Aida” connoisseur. She leaned over and said that of all the versions she’s seen, this one had to be up there.
“Peter Pan” and “Beauty and the Beast” are on the SCERA's docket this summer. If they’re anything like “Aida,” I’ll be there.
Content Advisory: “Aida” contains some sexual innuendo.