Narberth Community Theatre travels back to ancient Egypt to bring Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA to the stage. Directed by Barbara Sherman, the production runs till November 22nd in the company’s new locale, The Overbrook Presbyterian Church at the corner of City and Lancaster Avenues. Performances are Friday thru Sunday.
Inspired by Verdi’s opera of the same name, the story for this musical version of AIDA was initially taken from a children’s book written by soprano Leontyne Price. Originally, Disney optioned the piece to turn into an animated film. Their collaboration with John and Rice on THE LION KING had been so successful, they wanted to continue the association. The project was shelved, but the piece evolved into the current musical stage version, which opened on Broadway in March of 2000. Nominated for five Tony’s, AIDA won four—including Best Score and Best Actress in a Musical. Since its initial Broadway run, the show has had numerous regional productions, as well as two national tours. And now AIDA comes to Narberth…
It is an ambitious piece for a community theatre to take on, but Sherman and ensemble do a great job. Led by Mia Mbuy in the title role, the company harnesses some very powerful voices. All were impressive, with standout solo work by the aforementioned Mbuy (as the captive—and captivating—Nubian princess), Justin Damm as Radames (a young warrior in Pharaoh’s army), Brittany Adams as Nehebka (a Nubian slave girl who helps Aida), Chris DiMeo as Zoser (Radames father and the smarmy villain of the piece) and Alexandra Rush as Amneris (Pharaoh’s spoiled daughter and Radames’ fiancée). The blending of the leads’ voices on several duets was quiet lovely. Also solid were Jon Rivkind as the dying Pharaoh, Todd Barton as Amonorosa (Aida’s captured father—the king of Nubia) and Chris Bartholomew as Mereb (Radames’ loyal Nubian servant who knows Aida’s secret identity). Bartholomew provides much needed comic relief throughout the story. All the supporting ensemble also were solid vocally and executed Tom Stumme’s clever choreography well. They included Rachel Berger, Michelle Davis, Sara McMenamin, Crystal Nielsen, Michael Sherman, Nicolette Silverman, Tom Stumme, Mary Kate Sullivan and Nick Taddeo.
Sherman’s direction is assured and supports the story well, while clearly giving her cast solid motivations for each moment. My quibbles here would be to have the scene changes underscored and choreographed more tightly. Sherman is also listed as Set Designer. On the whole, the scenic elements are very evocative of Egypt, but I didn’t understand the two very large movable pieces placed in front of the curtain at the top of the show—with their black interiors towards the audience. The production starts off in a gallery of a present day museum and then flashes back to ancient times. I would have figured out something more attractive and intriguing for the audience to be looking at for the 20—30 minutes prior to the performance. However, when the curtain does open, audience members are treated to a beautiful backdrop and lovely Egyptian hieroglyphics on the movable pieces. Credit for scenic painting in the program is given to Laura Harmon. Well done! The lighting design by Phil Nathanson and Justin Damm was nicely done, as was the additional sound design by Derek Chafin and Michael Chang. Barbara Sherman and Christine Jackson have created some great costumes as well. And Chris Bartholomew gets a nod for crafting wonderful masks for the Pharaoh’s guards.
Raquel Garcia’s musical direction beautifully guides the live orchestra and the actors through John’s and Rice’s score. Although I have to comment that Elton John’s music is all over the map; it runs the gamut from reggae influenced numbers to African folk music inspirations to gospel to full-on rock, with John blithely ignoring historical accuracy. Narberth is lucky to have a full pit available to them, but I do wish they wouldn’t place the conductor on a high stool in front of downstage center. A climactic moment at the end of the performance was lost to me because the performers were seated on the floor at stage center and I couldn’t see their faces as I was looking at Garcia’s back. There has to be a better way…
As I stated earlier, AIDA is a complex musical. Not every community theatre has the chops to pull it off. But on the whole, Narberth can be proud of pushing themselves to raise the bar and go for it. There was a relatively full house at the opening performance, so their gamble may just pay off.
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls
& David Henry Hwang
Directed by Barbara Sherman
Narberth Community Theatre
6376 City Avenue (corner of Lancaster Avenue)
Philadelphia, PA 19151