“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