'Aida' marks new project between Latte Da, Hennepin Theatre Trust

January 3, 2013.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Theatre Latte Da and the Hennepin Theatre Trust are teaming up to present Aida at the Pantages. It's the result of long-in-the-making discussions between the two groups.

"We've talked for some time about how to make this beautiful space work. Not much theater has happened in that room since they remodeled it," says Theatre Latte Da's Peter Rothstein. "They have a hungry audience that has been telling them they want more."

For Latte Da, the relationship allows the company to present "slightly larger productions with more ambitious design. We can employ more local artists and, hopefully, their audience who is passionate about musical theater will be interested in crossing over," Rothstein says.

The end result is "Broadway Reimagined." For the first show in the series, the groups looked to a piece that hasn't had a major revival. Aida, with songs by Tim Rice and Elton John, premiered in 2000 and ran for more than four years. It has been featured in tours in the years since and also in regional productions.

Rice and John are no strangers to the musical stage. Rice is best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, while John -- along with being a hall-of-fame rocker -- created music for The Lion King and Billy Elliot.

"I always loved the score to Aida," Rothstein says. "It is really classic pop."

The book, crafted by a trio of writers, is adapted from Verdi's opera and follows the same basic shape, though it does take up the story of the doomed lovers in ancient Egypt earlier than the opera. One of the conceits of the musical is that the story is set in a Western museum.

"The story is a completely Western construct, so the framing device sets this up as the Western fascination with an ancient Eastern culture," Rothstein says. "Even when we go back in time, the sound of it is so contemporary pop music. We need to always have one foot in the modern world, so the museum device runs through the entire production."

That can range from having the museum guard continue to wander through the show for the entire production to putting the band up onstage. The musicians are mostly "drawn from the rock world. We really wanted that kind of energy and musicians who knew this vocabulary," Rothstein says.

The close relationship between the musicians and the action -- along with the relative newness to performing in a musical -- meant the players were brought in earlier in the process than usual.

"Normally, we just make an offer. Here we had interviews. We wanted to have a sense of their energy and so they had a better sense of what is expected from them. We have rehearsed with them more than we would with normal pit musicians," Rothstein says.

Though the piece was originally crafted under the Disney banner, this isn't a typical musical from the Mouse. "The piece is dark for Disney. Two people do get buried alive at the end. The story is about big ideas like colonialism and the co-opting of another culture," Rothstein says. "We are spending a lot of time around the table talking about the history of slavery; the cultural differences between the Egyptians and the Africans. It's all really complicated stuff."