Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida
Because Broadway theaters are one of the few places on earth where the line to the men’s room can actually stretch longer than the queue to the ladies’, the male theatergoer gets a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on powder-room chat during intermission. Here’s what one fella proclaimed during a preview of Aida, Disney’s latest bid for Broadway domination: ”It’s a very moving and powerful story…it’s also very funny!” Although he failed to note that the musical is also occasionally terrible, it’s a fair review. And a surprisingly positive one, given the show’s tumultuous trek to Broadway.
When the show opened out of town — with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, who gave us the multimedia gold mine called The Lion King — it suffered mixed reviews and technical glitches. Along the way, the director was replaced by Robert Falls. The male lead was replaced by Adam Pascal (Rent). During an early performance on Broadway, John got in a snit about incidental music and stomped out. (Strange. He’s usually so sensible and calm!) Cut to: the present. Despite its faults and troubled past, Aida is a helluva good time, and the musical may have a happy ending after all.
The same cannot be said of the story itself. Disney’s retelling of Verdi’s 1871 opera chronicles the short, unhappy life of Radames (Pascal), an Egyptian captain who falls for Aida (Heather Headley), a Nubian slave. No good can come of this, though Disney glosses over the tragedy with modern-day bookends. (Not to give away the ending, but I expect Rosie O’Donnell will soon be devoting an hour to the concept of reincarnation.) And there’s no shortage of humor and youthful exuberance — thanks largely to three monumentally talented and appealing leads. As Radames’ neglected fiancee, Amneris, Sherie Rene Scott camps it up in her first number, singing about the virtues of style while chorines perform a fashion show. One hat evokes, quite convincingly, a windswept desert. Pascal, on the other hand, wears minimal costumes and amps up the tunes with his muscled, rock-star vocals. And Headley is heavenly: One of her equals Angela Bassett plus Brandy plus Betty Buckley.
Ultimately, of course, our two young lovers endure a miserable fate, but at least Pharaoh doesn’t make them sit in an $80 seat and watch Wayne Cilento’s Hey-I-Could-Be-in-‘N-Sync-Too choreography. And they’re not required to play Name That Tune with the score; the songs begin to sound the same after a while. But the audience seems to love ’em. Also overheard at intermission: ”This is the best thing since The Lion King!” That either bodes well for Aida, or I was in the men’s room with Michael Eisner. B