AIDA: Launching the Soul into Heaven on the Wings of Love

by Terry Stern

Kim Suskind of Galloway, NJ (top left), Jahmir Scott of Allentown, NJ (top right), Tom Coppolecchia of Mount Holly, NJ (bottom left), and Meera Mohan of Plainsboro, NJ (bottom right) star in Elton John & Tim Rice's AIDA, playing at the Kelsey Theatre in W. Windsor NJ through November 27.

AIDA is a passionate story of love, conquest, duty and family written in the late 19th Century for the Verdi opera by Antonio Ghislanzoni from a scenario penned by a French Egyptologist. It delights us with the splendor, beauty and truth of its heroes and instructs us that there is nobility in choosing love over all.

The modern retelling by Elton John and Tim Rice delights us in the same measure but instructs us that choosing love is all. In the end, nothing is lost. “The spirit always burning though the flesh be torn apart,” calls the stirring voice of Meera Mohan in the title role above the chorus of hopeful slaves in “The Gods Love Nubia” which ends the first act. We agree that spirit trumps force. By the end of the second act, we see that spirit is force and love trumps all evil intent.

This production is a beautiful illustration of the sheer magic of story-telling on a stage but may not be for everybody. It offers several points of harmonic convergence when everything is pulling at full strength in unison in exactly the same direction: the power and depth of the acting matches that of the singing, the staging, the lighting, the set design, the set art, the costuming, all in perfect service of the moment. At those points, the building lifts off the ground and floats gently into the heavens. If you like that sort of thing and are not concerned about floating off the ground (you do get down safely), see this show.

The three principal leads and the two principal dancers are fiery, ardent, sexy, soulful knockouts. The dancers perform intriguing little dancing jewels, one done down stage center backlit in near silhouette creating a slowly evolving physical representation of the struggle between the unyielding call of duty and the ferocious demands of an overwhelming love. It was a very moving moment

This beautiful, modern resetting of the tale comes in 23 musical pieces, songs and reprises, ranging from stirring production numbers to soulful ballads with a stop over at a comic “My Strongest Suit” . This wickedly funny tune is deliciously given to us by Kimberly Suskind as Amneris, the shallow but highly fashionable princess, supported by her chorus of fashion plate handmaidens.

Ms. Suskind’s voice shows a fine flexibility of style and delivery as she provides the play’s exposition with attention-getting passion in “Every Story is a Love Story” and later pairs in vocal duets with the other principal leads in “Not Me”, which ends in a splendid choral burst of ensemble singing, rich and pleasing. Ms. Suskind’s voice and talent are emblematic of all the principal pieces of this production: great on their own, mind-boggling in combination.

Tom Coppolecchia plays Radames, the captain of Pharaoh’s expeditionary force, with the energetic physicality of young King Arthur awaiting Guinevere or Tony awaiting Maria. He is earnest, restless and eager. He covers the stage in three bounds then, unable to take the boring familiarity of where he is, he bounds back. He has to get moving. He’s looking for something. When he finds it, his performance explodes.

His duet with Ms. Mohan near the end of the play provides a moment not to be missed. Staged and lit like Rodin’s The Kiss pouring out its impassioned story with soul-piercing harmonies, this stage picture moves the heart even as a mere memory.

But if anyone can be said to make the show, it is Meera Mohan. From the moment she walks out on stage to the moment she takes the last bow, it is all there: the pride, the innocence, the passion, the love, the conflict, the unbreakable bond of family, the ineluctable urgings of love, all informing her voice, moves and expressions. To say that she makes every emotional turn with total clarity and force damns her with faint praise. She embodies the strength of the Nubian princess. Thank you Ms. Mohan. Your talents are of the first rank. Your performance rocked.

No single talent carried this show. Nearly every aspect shone. Respect wants to be paid to the costumes. They provide the crowning jewel to this grand, visual spectacle with energizing color and texture. Thanks to designers and makers John M. Maurer, Diana Gilman Maurer, Tina Heinze, Laurie Gougher and Kathy Slothower.

The lighting in this show is designed and executed to profoundly solidifying and homogenizing effect with such inspiring use of color and projection that I take particular effort to notice and thank designer M. Kitty Gettlik who, in her spare time, is also the artistic director of the Kelsey. Five jaw-drops to you, Ms. Gettlik. You created dramatic light with quick changes in full support of the story, glorifying the stage pictures and accurately pushing the limit: never once standing out on its own but always going to the edge in support of the moment. Thank you.

The art in the set painting is astonishing. You can feel the weight of the stone comprising the Egyptian palace. When set pieces glide gracefully and effortlessly dancing through the set changes, you wonder how many slaves tugging on ropes it’s taking to move those great, heavy things. Thank you Amy Foris Bessellieu for your keen eye and your steady hand.

Pleasing as it is, and doubtlessly worth a great deal more than the ticket price, it is not a perfect production. The opening pantomime in which the framework of the story is established is very fast and confusing. If I didn’t already know the story of the show I would not have gotten the setup then.

The men’s chorus is weak. The choreography is flat at times, noticeable particularly in certain full-cast situations where everyone is simply drawn across the stage in a flat line and stands there for a while, singing. There are some difficulties with the individuals in the chorus blending into the glorious, unified voice they eventually become.

And one more note: the scene wherein soldiers come looking for Aida to kill her forms the pivotal plot event giving Aida reason for her final decision. The soldiers come in at full charge and stay there. The tension implicit in the moment does not get a chance to build. It is played quickly and the audience doesn’t quite get the chance to appreciate its import fully. Ms. Mohan takes what she gets and spins it into gold, and the show achieves full height and stride in a great many spots. But it is not perfect. It does, however, very skillfully use stage craft to cover many gaps in the field. The gods love glow paint.

It is good to keep in mind that Verdi and Elton John are doing the same thing: telling a powerful story to the well-heeled patron with style and message tuned to the day. Antonio Ghislanzoni’s story gives the nicely mid-Victorian message that the noble soul chooses love over life. Elton John and Tim Rice’s version gives us the optimist’s view. The noble soul earns both. This production earns very high marks and will exalt your heart and rock your mind.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA
Book and songs by Elton John and Tim Rice
Directed by Dan Maurer
Through November 27, 2011
Maurer Productions Onstage
The Kelsey Theatre
2100 Old Trenton Rd.
West Windsor, NJ

You may also like

Leave a Reply