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Monday, January 7, 2013

"Aida" as Doomed as the Story it Tells?

"Aida" as Doomed as the Story it Tells?

There’s plenty to appreciate about Theater Latté Da’s Aida, which opened this past Saturday at Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. The 15 cast members put forth terrific effort, with all but a few of them playing multiple roles. The choreography is creative and vibrant. And it’s clear that director Peter Rothstein and his creative team embraced the chance to take liberties with Tim Rice and Elton John’s 2000 musical. But for all this effort and creativity, the show fell flat, due, in part, to an overload of flash and nothing to back it up.

Aida, based on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name, is the doomed love story of Aida (Austene Van), the princess of Nubia, and Ramades (Jared Oxborough), an Egyptian captain engaged to be married to Amneris, the daughter of Pharaoh. War, a love triangle, forbidden romance: it’s all there. Unfortunately, a strong plot does not automatically translate into a winning performance, just like solid acting from a few cast members does not make up for the shortcomings of others.

First, the good: Cat Brindisi (Amneris) and Ben Bakken (Zoser, the father of Ramades and commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army) both excel in their performances. Brindisi, who is best known for her stellar performance in last year’s Spring Awakening, sparkles as the spoiled, fashion-loving Egyptian princess. In addition to embracing Amneris’s shallowness in act one, Brindisi stretches her character to be a more sympathetic, thoughtful role in act two, offering her grace and forgiveness upon discovering the romance between Ramades and Aida.

Bakken as Zoser.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Similarly, Bakken wholly loses himself in Zoser. His tenor voice, which often graces the stage of Chanhassen Dinner Theater, almost makes up for the unfortunate costuming design chosen by Tulle & Dye for Zoser and his soldiers: black leather skirts, exposed sock garters, berets, and small round sunglasses, a la Elton John. It’s over-the-top to the point of distraction, made worse by the awkwardness of the soldiers’ positions of attention: leaning forward with one leg held off the ground.

Props, staging, and other choreography decisions add to the play’s awkwardness. Bows are exaggerated and involve too many arm motions. Pharaoh is portrayed as an Oz-like figure—a giant floating head—instead of an actual actor. Shadow screens and sheets of cloth are overused to add “scenic” effect. The worst two offenders, in my opinion, came in the final scenes. The first: a boat cut-out accompanied by water sound effects to show the King’s departure. It felt cheap, amateur, and almost offensive in its obviousness. The second: a trickle of sand falling into the tomb in which Aida and Ramades are buried alive in for being traitors. Again, amateur and an offense to the audience in assuming their imaginations can’t create the scene for themselves.

Van and Oxborough.
By Michal Daniel

Where the props and scenic effects were excessive, however, the costumes lacked. Oxborough’s sexiness was halved by his skin-tight jeans, tucked-in wife beater, and ill-fitting boots. Van, whose athletic body assuredly looks good in everything, appeared almost frumpy in her halter-top stretch-fabric dress. This was most unfortunate as it distracted from both actors' impressive vocal performances: their singing shone, especially as the show progressed.

Overall, the production left me wondering how this show won four Tonys 12 years ago. Not because of the singing or the dancing, both of which were excellent, but because of the book itself: none of the songs are soundtrack worthy. Where my heartstrings should have been tugged, they cringed; where my eyes should have shed tears, they looked away. Costuming and excessive props aside, Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust’s biggest mistake was choosing this play with which to forge their new endeavor, Broadway Re-Imagined. Hopefully, said alliance won’t be as doomed as this love story.

Through January 27
Pantages Theater, 710 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
612-339-7007, hennepintheatretrust.org

Posted on Monday, January 7, 2013 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Jan 7, 2013 01:01 pm
 Posted by  leilo

Dear Ms. Burkhardt,

Are you sure you actually saw Aida at the Pantages on Saturday night? I am not sure how you could possibly be so wholly wrong in your review. I was fortunate to attend the opening night of Aida on Saturday night. I have literally not stopped talking about the show since I attended. Peter Rothstein shows his brilliance once again in everything from the set to the acting. You are wrong about the performance of Austene Van, her voice was strong and her presence beautiful as Aida. You are also wrong about the performance of Jared Oxborough--who is just plain perfectly cast as the strong and irresistible Ramades--I only would have preferred to see him in a skirt too--but that's just me. Finally, the launch of Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theatre Latte Da partnership, Broadway Reimagined, set against the backdrop of the beautiful and historic Pantages theatre was perfect and clearly illustrates the great possibilities that are ahead for this clever marriage of local arts organizations. You were right about Cat Brindisi and Ben Bakken, their performances were brilliant as well. So, congratulations, you got one thing right.

Jan 7, 2013 01:29 pm
 Posted by  Ellen B.

Thank you for your insight and perspective. I agree that Austene Van and Jared Oxborough both gave strong performances; their voices are unrivaled and fit well with their roles. Where I was disappointed and felt the play was lacking was in the costuming and props, which distracted from rather than complemented the actors' strong presence on stage.

I also agree that the pairing of Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust is an exciting prospect. I am fearful, however, that this first fruit of their marriage won't prove to be as successful as they had hoped. I think that in their anticipation of this first show, both Peter Rothstein and Thomas Hoch opted for over-the-top everything instead of demonstrating the usual restraint (and there is beauty in simplicity!) that I've come to associate with Theater Latte Da productions.

I'm glad you enjoyed the show, and hope you continue to tell others to see the performance. I'd love to hear their feedback as well!

Ellen Burkhardt

Jan 7, 2013 04:05 pm
 Posted by  Chris HG

Dear Mrs.Burkhardt

I am writing to you with great disappointment. I normally read your theater reviews and I have often followed your recommendations. Today will be the last time I will read your column since I consider that your review of Aida not only grossly inaccurate but also mean-spirited. I saw the show this past Saturday and I along with the rest of the audience rose to my feet to applaud an amazing performance. It is a great idea to produce musicals with local actors and musicians (by the way the band sounds amazing) at an affordable ticket price. Hopefully your inaccurate review wont prevent anyone from seeing this outstanding and moving show.

Buy your tickets readers!! My family cannot stop talking about it!

Jan 8, 2013 04:01 pm
 Posted by  theplaybillcollector

Hey Ellen. I was at opening night of "Aida" as well and agree with many of the things you said. My review was a bit more sugar coated and I commend you for being so blunt and honest. Personally I believe it is great to have different opinions. I love that some people found it amazing and others did not enjoy it. That is what art is about, different opinions. Thanks for sharing YOUR truth.

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