On the north side of the Kennedy Center, the Sondheim Celebration rolls on: gorgeously melodic, thrillingly sophisticated musical theater. And now on the south side, there’s the touring popera version of Aida—a rice cake of a revue, puffed up with the unbearable lightness of Disney. To paraphrase Elton John, it’s a sadly dangerous situation. With the construction going on these days around the KenCen’s foundation, the imbalance between these two blockbusters might flip the building into the Potomac.
Like SUVs, the Disney aesthetic has become so omnipresent that critiquing it amounts to complaining about capitalism or carbon-based life forms. But Aida, Disney’s first musical written directly for the stage (instead of adapted from a cartoon), goes the extra step of turning superior talent into mediocrity. Composer Elton John, lyricist Tim Rice, playwright David Henry Hwang (who wrote M. Butterfly), and director Robert Falls (artistic director for Chicago’s redoubtable Goodman Theatre) have all made contributions that seem like artless forgeries. And whereas most musicals have showstoppers, Aida has so little momentum that it’s constantly on the verge of stopping itself.
Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name features a riot of intrigue amid two warring kingdoms, but this Aida, set in ancient Egypt, just says that it’s sad to belong to someone else when the right one comes along. Radames (Jeremy Kushnier), Pharaoh’s army commander, has captured some slaves from Nubia, the kingdom on the Upper Nile. One of them, a feisty woman named Aida (Paulette Ivory), takes a soldier hostage but gets quickly subdued. Radames admires her spunk, though, and instead of sending her to work in Pharaoh’s copper mines, he gives her as a gift to his fiancee (of nine years!), the ditzy Amneris (Kelli Fournier). Little does he know that Aida is a Nubian princess, whose presence might just stir the other slaves to rebellion…
Why hasn’t Radames tied the knot with Amneris—the daughter of Pharaoh himself (Peter Kapetan)? Radames’ ambitious father, Zoser (Robert Neary), is even slowly poisoning the Pharaoh so his son can ascend to the throne. Yet Radames keeps avoiding the subject, preferring to sail off to more battles. Pharaoh, ailing and impatient, finally decrees a wedding date, but Radames has already fallen hard for Aida. It drives him wild that she barely gives him the time of day—that, and her strangely regal quality…
Even a great cast couldn’t save this clunker, but this ensemble compounds its problems. Kushnier’s Radames looks like one of the Bee Gees, with a Lion King mane of hair and blousy shirts whose buttons don’t seem to work. He’s a soft, adolescent-girl fantasy of a leading man who has zero chemistry with Ivory’s Aida, herself forbidding as granite and about as warm. Neary’s Zoser has an expensive haircut and not nearly enough menace for a proper villain. Eric L. Christian gets nothing to work with as Mereb, Pharaoh’s court jester and the obligatory Disney sprite. Only Fournier as Amneris nails her character, a Cosmo girl who has the brains and boom-shaka-laka of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. Fournier does a sultry turn in “My Strongest Suit,” a silly paean to superficiality that brightens Aida briefly until John and Rice milk the number dry.
Really, though, the show was farkatke from the first story conference. Disney thinks history or real ideas are too complicated for us; instead, it spoon-feeds us parables about “equality” and “self-determination.” “Nothing is an accident/We are free to have it all,” belts out Radames early on. “We are what we want to be/It’s in ourselves to rise and fall.” (The Disney folk also manipulate African-American pride and resentment by casting the imperialist Egyptians as lily-white and the principal Nubians as black.)
Under Natasha Katz’s primary-color lighting, the show offers not one memorable line: The generic book (written by Hwang, Falls, and Linda Woolverton) and Rice’s lyrics read like the products of extensive polling. Wayne Cilento’s choreography seldom strays beyond hieroglyphic Macarenas. It’s also hard to see what Falls’ direction has added to the proceedings (other than his reputation). The cast comes together about as well as an outfit assembled in the dark, and Falls treats the book as something to be rushed through on the way to yet another Elton John song—perhaps so that people will more quickly snap up the soundtrack so conveniently hawked on the steps outside the Opera House.
And Sir Elton’s music, number after number, is of a quality usually associated with the Miss America Pageant. It does have his churning piano and those clenched, minor-key phrases that you can’t sing without sounding like him. (Think “Your Song.”) But the composer has swapped his usual intimacy for bombast, thumped out by synthesized drums.
And instead of leading to poignant moments, every single line of these songs has a phony catch in the throat. Aida, in fact, is a long spectacle of fake emoting—even if you wanted to be moved by the lovers’ ultimate demise, the singers have already had all your emotions for you. (Also, the songs have a laughably long-distance relationship with the story—for example, the ballad “Elaborate Lives,” sung by characters so thinly drawn they would disappear if turned sideways.) In this light, Bob Crowley’s impressive sets (for instance, a vertical swimming-pool scrim behind which swimmers breast-stroke up to the light standards) seem intended to distract from Aida’s essential emptiness.
Kitsch, as Milan Kundera defined it, is congratulating yourself for having feelings instead of just feeling them. Could there be a better description of the Disney project? It’s emotional snake oil, extracted from stereotypes and lavish production spending. Do yourself a favor: Walk back past the bust of JFK, buy a ticket to the Sondheim, and prepare to cry some real tears. CP