'Aida' review: Theater Latte Da production has sound but no fury

January 6, 2013.By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

The production of "Aida" conjured by Walt Disney Theatricals made its Broadway debut in 2000, but that almost seems like a lifetime ago in musical theater, which has evolved a great deal in the last decade or so. It's a credit, then, to director Peter Rothstein that his production for Theater Latte Da feels acutely up to date and of the moment.

It also feels like a mishmash, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Latte Da -- which has been growing in reputation and budget over the past few years -- co-produced this staging with the Hennepin Theatre Trust, and it shows: The production values in the 1,000-seat Pantages Theatre, although not ostentatious, are top-notch. There's Joel Sass' handsome set design, which effectively blends modern and ancient themes. There's Marcus Dilliard's lighting scheme, which balances atmospherics and rock-concert flash. And there's the hip, sometimes flaky, costumes by the local firm of Tulle & Dye (Nathan Barlow, playing a clever Nubian slave, looks like Michael Jackson in his red toy-soldier coat and matching high-top tennies).

That sense of irony bordering on camp is rather in vogue in musical theater these days, with shows such as "Spring Awakening" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" folding the genre's traditions back in on themselves and then setting them in front of a fun-house mirror. Director Rothstein, who never has been shy about borrowing from the latest staging trends, does so again here: The leading characters sometimes can be found singing in front of anachronistic (and nonfunctioning) microphone stands, and there's a first-act musical interlude that's staged with an aerial routine pilfered from Cirque du Soleil.

Those choices are entertaining in and of themselves, but because they don't cohere, Rothstein has to find ways to distract. He's well-abetted in this quest by Michael Matthew Ferrell's eye-popping choreography and Jason Hanson's music direction, which rocks the Elton John/Tim Rice score mightily. And no material harm is done to the well-trod, slapped-together storyline about an Egyptian princess, the captain she loves and the noble slave who completes the love triangle.

The show is conspicuously well sung. Austene Van (in the title role), Jared Oxborough (as Radames, the captain) and Cat Brindisi (as the princess Amneris) all have pipes that are more than sufficient to give unimpeachable voice to the score's collection of ballads, rock anthems and character tunes. But although each performer manages to put a stamp on their songs (we'll give a special shout-out here to Oxborough's testosterone-laced "Fortune Favors the Brave" and Brindisi's coy "My Strongest Suit), Rothstein and the leading actors seem content to let the music do the work.

There's not a lot of chemistry or connection in this triangle, nor is there a lot of character-defining happening. The only performer to really sink his teeth into the role, in fact, is Ben Bakken as the scheming, throne-thieving Zoser. Bakken radiates malevolence and Machiavellianism, which is no small task when you've been costumed in a black leather kilt, sunglasses and black socks with garters.

Latte Da's "Aida" has the power to entertain but does so mainly via diversion. For all its glitter and impressive volume, this is a production more about style than substance.