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Constellation Theatre Company’s unofficial early-aughts Broadway reclamation project that has in recent years brought us superb close-quarters revivals of both hits like Avenue Q and worthy curiosities like The Wild Party now splits the difference between the two with Aida. Elton John and Tim Rice’s follow-up to The Lion King was inspired by a 1990s illustrated children’s book that was adapted from Verdi’s 1871 opera that was bastardized from ancient Egyptian history. John said his single greatest influence for the piece was his late friend Gianni Versace. Hey, success has many daddies. And four Tony Awards and a four-and-a-half-year run is success, even if Aida is, in less quantifiable metrics, not the greatest musical ever written, nor even the second-best musical ever written by Sir Elton John.
But if you look beyond its musical work, Constellation has frequently been an outfit that embraces difficult or obscure material for its performers to polish up, and that’s certainly the scenario here. Four actors whom director Michael J. Bobbitt has cast in Aida—Shayla S. Simmons as Aida, the Nubian queen who hides her royal lineage (but not her regal bearing) from her Egyptian conquerors; Jobari Parker-Namdar as Radames, the arrogant Egyptian captain who presents her as a gift to his betrothed, Princess Amneris, but finds he can’t stop thinking about the Nubian woman he captured; Chani Wereley as Amneris, the inexperienced but not dumb princess; and Greg Watkins as Radames’ father Zoser, a disloyal member of the Pharaoh’s court—are multidimensional and magnetic even when made to sing songs that communicate less than their faces do. Watkins, in particular, should earn hazard pay (if not a Helen Hayes Award) for the way he gets through the limp reggae of “Another Pyramid” with his dignity intact. Simmons and Parker-Namdar blend well on “Written in the Stars,” a minor hit off the 1999 “concept album” that predated the Broadway show by a year, wherein this forbidden love duet was shared by Sir Elton and a 16-year-old LeAnn Rimes. Simmons and Paker-Namdar’s sexual chemistry is more convincing.
Design has always been another Constellation strength, by which I mean its designers’ choices are never mild. A.J. Guban’s set extends the pyramid motif even to the tiles of the floor and to a sort of latticework of triangles hung from the ceiling, while his nightclub lighting scheme favors blues and purples, the better to show off the gold accents in the floor and in Kenann M. Quander’s costumes. Musical director Bobby McCoy’s band is loud and urgent in the confines of the Source black box; they sound good enough that you wish Sir Elton had been moved to turn up the glam quotient in his mushy, midtempo rock score. The cumulative effect is a sensory feast, but one that may leave you with a bellyache before it’s done.
To Nov. 18 at 1835 14th St. NW. $25–$55. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.