Aida by Theater Latté Da, performing at the Pantages Theatre

January 5, 2013
By John Olive, HowWasTheShow.

First the good: Aida (Theater Latté Da performing at the marvelous Pantages, through Jan 27) is a rippingly good show.  If you like full-bore, rock-’em-sock-’em musicals, Latté Da delivers the goods.  Anchored by a stirring Elton John/Tim Rice score (those soaring love duets!), the ageless story of doomed lovers in ancient Egypt has undeniable power.  The militaristic Radames, betrothed for nine years (!) to Princess Amneris, falls in love with the recently captured (and strangely reluctant to escape) Nubian princess Aida.  Looove sparks fly and when Amneris, inevitably, susses them out she locks Aida and Radames in a tomb, setting up a boffo Romeo And Juliet/Edgar Allan Poe ending.

Aida features a terrific performance by the exquisite Cat Brindisi as Amneris.  Tall, with an open expressive face and unassailable musical chops, Brindisi gives Amneris real substance (the opening “Every Story Is A Love Story”) while still playing (to the hilt) the girl-group camp of “My Strongest Suit”.  She is a major talent and herein lies a major reason to see Aida.  I recommend that you take advantage of the opportunity, before Brindisi moves on to greener (and more lucrative) pastures in New York or Los Angeles.

Good performances are also put forth by Jared Oxborough as Radames and Austene Van as Aida.  Both actors are terrific singers and both have compelling and charismatic presences.  Van beautifully captures Aida’s quandary: I love him – but I love my country as well; who should receive my allegiance?  Lovely.  I also greatly enjoyed the young Nathan Barlow as Mereb – a talent to watch.  As Zoser, Ben Bakken isn’t very fatherly, but he has a unique and compelling singing voice.   Performances are universally excellent.

Aida works.  If I’ve made it sound like something you would enjoy, and I hope I have, please stop reading this review, click on the above links, and make your rezzies.  You will have a good time.

Ahem. The show is also beset with problems, stemming largely from the blandness of the characters. The lovers Aida and Radames never blossom into compelling individuals (this in no way reflects upon the excellent performances of Van and Oxborough). The fathers remain ciphers and one, Amneris’s Dad, is a Wizard Of Oz, pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain voice. Without any specificity the music, however good, becomes generic in a distressing Andrew Lloyd Weber way. The story doesn’t grab as it should.

Director Peter Rothstein (also Latté Da’s artistic director) is massively gifted but he has tendencies toward fussiness and in this show he gives this full rein. Every scene has some sort of device: waving blue fabric to signify the Nile; shadow box scrims; abstract designs flying in and out; light boxes, models of boats. Etcetera. One can’t point to any of these and say, “This doesn’t work,” but the cumulative effect is to make the show feel overly busy – and slow. There is also, I should mention, an endless gymnastics performance midway through Act One. This doesn’t help.

Some of the design choices Rothstein and his designers have made are also problematic. In particular the costumes are don’t thrill: many of the Egyptians wear blue jeans and Sergeant Pepper coats. Others wear kilts, black knee high socks and garters. Amneris wears glittery 20th century gowns. The costumes don’t gel.

Okay. Got that out of my system. Despite these problems, Rothstein’s Aida provides many many pleasures. Latté Da is Minnesota’s premier purveyor of music theater. The Pantages is a grand venue, beautifully restored and small enough to make you feel like a real theater-goer (as opposed to a human sardine). My advice: see this one.