Aida ignites passion and talent - A strong cast shines in the contemporary Elton John and Tim Rice musical

January 8, 2013.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

The first weekend of 2013 brought the hot Egyptian sands and an even hotter forbidden love affair with a largely satisfying production of Tim Rice and Elton John's Aida to the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis.

The musical, a co-production between the Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theatre Latte Da, didn't go deeply enough into the sometimes off-putting undercurrents of the material, though it's possible they tried and just didn't find anything there. What is onstage is a big and flashy production anchored by terrific performances from the leads and solid work from the entire company.

Austene Van and Jared Oxborough certainly brought the overheated passion as lovers Aida and Radames. She is a Nubian princess captured by the Egyptian captain on a raid down the Nile. He doesn't know she is royalty, but he is taken by her beauty and fire. And as quick as you can say "Stockholm syndrome," she is also in his arms.

There are complications — well, beyond that Radames ripped Aida from her home and enslaved her — including his longtime betrothed, Princess Amneris (Cat Brindisi), and his conniving father, Zoser (Ben Bakken, decked out in black from head to toe, including leather jacket, kilt, socks, combat boots, and garters). Aida connects with the community of other Nubian slaves, who are more than a bit puzzled about her love of the oppressor.

The material, based on Verdi's opera and featuring a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang, leaves a lot of questions and issues of slavery, oppression, and conquest on the table, mainly ushering the characters from one song to the next.

John's score is solid — better, in fact, than most of his post-glory-days work — while Rice's lyrics aren't too cringe-worthy (full disclosure: I hate Tim Rice's work with a fire that could ignite a sun). The brightest lights here are our two leads. Van is absolutely stunning in the title role, not just in her singing but in the fervor she brings to the character. Her Aida is every bit the princess: regal, smart, and deeply concerned for her people. Oxborough has the crisp stage presence needed for a cool military leader, but he can also smolder with needed passion.

Their voices work well together, with Van avoiding the overblown gymnastics that trip up most wannabe divas and Oxborough channeling John's distinct vocal inflections.

Other standout moments include Bakken's two featured numbers as the evil father (it's remarkable how commanding he can be while seated in a chair), Brindisi's growth from shallow princess to true leader, and the Act One closer, "The Gods Love Nubia," in which the skills of choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell are on full display.

The whole evening looks sumptuous, from Joel Sass's Egypt-by-way-of-rock-concert set to the beautiful costumes created by Tulle & Dye. Director Peter Rothstein runs a smooth ship from beginning to end, integrating the different aspects of the production, from the story to the music to the onstage band, into a mostly satisfying whole.

The partnership saw some rough patches opening night, especially as malfunctioning microphones were as much a part of the intermission buzz as Van's performance or the set design. It cleared up in the second half, and hopefully can be put down to first-night jitters.