April 2013.By American Theatre—Theatre Communications Group.

Peter Rothstein, DIRECTION: One thing I loved about the Broadway production of Aida was that it began and ended in the Egyptian wing of a modern museum. There was something responsible about the framing device because Aida, the musical and the opera, was written from a relatively modern Western gaze. So I thought, “What if we took it further and the museum rearticulated itself throughout?” The exhibit pedestals [pictured above] became a way to transport props and artifacts on and offstage. The character of Pharaoh was a sculpture, an artifact, with a disembodied voice. For the final scene where Aida and Radames are buried alive, a stream of sand fell from above into a glass display case. I told the designers that at all times I wanted one foot in ancient Egypt, one in the modern museum and one in the world of rock-and-roll. It needed to look and feel as though a rock band was telling this story. So the microphone became a symbol of power, a weapon of manipulation. The Egyptian characters would step up to a mike for a moment or a song, while Aida and her fellow Nubians were given more organic means to express themselves.

Joel Sass, SET DESIGN: The venue for the show—the Pantages Theatre, a restored 1908 vaudeville house with very little wing space—was a big design influence. Any scenic architecture needed to be stationary, but still capable of evoking different moods. Just out of frame of the above photo, there are two 20-foot obelisks that were painted and textured to look like carved sandstone, but we made them out of a material that could be lit from within. During the big rock-and-roll moments, they would pulse with strobe lights or blaze with various colors. We placed all the scenes in the show within the context of the exhibit. A series of rolling museum cases and pedestals were fitted with recessed lighting powered by batteries and run with remote dimmers—they exhibited artifacts and delivered props. For instance, that central platform [above] sometimes held a human figure, a throne, or objects for the banquet scenes. One thing that Peter and I were excited about was keeping the band on view at all times. So behind that big painted Egyptian mural, which implied the relationship between the three main characters, was a five-member rock band, contained in a 16-foot-tall pyramid structure made of gold-painting lighting truss.

Ellen Roeder, COSTUME DESIGN: My partner Lyle Jackson and I went with the clothing of today but struggled with how to give it a Nubian and Egyptian feel. We tackled that challenge via color palette and clothing silhouette. The Nubian palette was earthy with gold, brown and rust. Radames [far left] kept his blue jeans and boots on the entire show. Aida’s robe [above] was made of batik fabric with feathers and beads to create that African feel. Even though Aida is a slave, she’s still a princess and remains true to herself, so we kept her in that dress throughout the entire show—a knit print in a Nubian palette with brown, gold and a little green. Lyle and I were worried about it being too strong and thought about giving her costume changes, but we decided to stick with it. This show was a constant struggle between “Are we doing enough?” and “Have we gone too far?”

Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida ran at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis Jan. 3-27, in a co-production between Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust. The production featured direction by Peter Rothstein; music by Elton John; lyrics by Tim Rice; book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang; musical direction by Jason Hansen; choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell; set design by Joel Sass; costume design by Tulle & Dye (Ellen Roeder and Lyle Jackson); lighting design by Marcus Dillard; and sound design by Sean Healey. Opposite page, foreground from left, Jared Oxborough, Cat Brindisi and Austene Van. Above center, Van.

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.


'Aida' pumps up the spectacle

January 7, 2013.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

One mustn't peer too deeply into the soul of "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida." The politics of colonization, race and slavery drift about in unconvincing cross currents -- never feeling satisfying or profound.

No, this is a grand love story -- a tragic romance that offers the rare glimmer of a second chance.

"Aida" finds its strength in songs, performance and spectacle. And these elements -- mixed in potent measure -- animate the Theater Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust production that opened Saturday at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis.

This staging launches "Broadway Re-Imagined," a series aimed at raising the theatrical stakes in the Twin Cities -- at least in terms of musicals. How refreshing to find producers with the audacity to believe that this community's work is important and worthwhile, with the potential to export on tour.

Director Peter Rothstein uses the full operatic lexicon -- including broad stereotypes and epic images -- to propel his production. The standout numbers from the opening minutes, for example, come from Cat Brindisi as ditzy princess Amneris and Ben Bakken as villainous Zoser. These characters skate on the thin edge of caricature with supreme self-awareness and commitment. Brindisi's confidence grows every time she opens her mouth or vamps like a fool; Bakken, in "Another Pyramid," relishes the gritty skin of Zoser and reminds us that he's among the very best music-theater performers in town.

The lovers are never as interesting as the clowns (quick, name a romantic lead from a Marx Brothers movie). Austene Van and Jared Oxborough do, however, warm up to an honest affection between the Nubian princess Aida and Radames, her captor and then forbidden paramour.

Their chemistry keeps us interested in the machinations leading to a sad fate, but again the details matter less than the raw and emotional power found in such propulsive numbers as "Dance of the Robe" and "The Gods Love Nubia." Van leads both with a fierce, almost reckless, power that comes from deep within her heart. Oxborough sounds stronger than he ever has on stage, with a keen vulnerability in Radames' sad rich boy persona.

Choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell and music director Jason Hansen are like the bass line of a popular song -- the hidden bone structure and lifeblood that keeps everything alive.

Technically, this show could not be stronger. Set designer Joel Sass works in a royal blue and gold palette, with imposing obelisks, lovely painted scrims and witty touches such as a ship model that scrolls high above the stage. Tulle and Dye's costumes mash up styles and eras to create distinct icons rather than a specific world. We feel Marcus Dilliard's lighting design turn the mood.

It is one thing to say that Rothstein, Latté Da and the Theatre Trust should be celebrated for pushing the envelope with this new production. It is another to say this "Aida" is compelling and worth seeing on the terms of entertainment and as an example of what local artists can do.

Curiocity: Q&A With The Star, Director Of ‘Aida’

January 7, 2013.Television interview with Peter Rothstein and Asustene Van, WCCO.

A new collaborative partnership between Hennepin Theatre Trust — and their marketing prowess — and a favorite local theater company, Theater Latté Da, takes the best of our Twin Cities talent and brings it to a larger spectrum.

To kick off this venture, which has been dubbed Broadway Re-Imagined, the artistic team chose Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” to bring theater-goers into this new era.

The production, which ran on Broadway for four years, is the story of forbidden love, oppression and hope. It bring the audience from a contemporary setting to ancient Egypt and then bounces between the two worlds.

Inspired by the Giuseppi Verdi opera, the production now playing at the Pantages Theatre features a wealth of local talent, under the helm of extraordinary direction.

For more about this powerful tale and the beginning of Broadway Re-Imagined, we sat down with Director Peter Rothstein and lead actress Austene Van, who plays Aida.

This has been a partnership that’s been brewing between Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theater Latte Da for quite some time, and now it’s finally become a reality — and no doubt, an added pressure for success. What’s it like to see it come to fruition?

Rothstein: We’ve been working with Hennepin Theatre Trust now for five years, on our holiday show “All Is Calm,” we’ve just realized over these past five years, we speak a very similar language, we share passions and they have, you know, they’re experts in marketing to this community and building a really enthusiastic audience. And Theater Latte Da has slowly been building an audience for more adventurous musical theater. And now to bring the two of them together, just I think allows both our organizations to really flourish. It gives local artists an opportunity to work in these beautiful, historic theaters that we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to, but also puts local talent in front of local audiences — and that’s pretty thrilling.

Being able to show off our local talent in front of those larger, local audiences, what’s that been like for both of you?

Van: For me, I am just always proud of our theater community — I think we have a strong theater community here and an amazing wealth of talent in the Twin Cities. We have about 70-something professional theaters here and this is what we do. What’s really wonderful about the Twin Cities, I think, is that it’s a wonderful, a nurturing place to develop your craft. The arts are supported by individuals and organizations but also there’s, I don’t know what to really call it, but there’s almost a family sense where there seems to be enough to go around, so everyone is in support of everyone else and encouraging. I think sometimes theaters think it’s necessary to get talent from other sources, other places, New York, Chicago, but it does your heart good to know that folks have confidence, like Peter, in the talent that’s here in the Twin Cities.

Why start with Aida? How was that chosen as the first production of this partnership?

Rothstein: Well I think we were looking for a title that spoke to audiences that have been attending theater on Hennepin Avenue, and huge hits that have been on Hennepin Avenue. I’ve been to ‘Lion King,’ with an Elton John score, ‘Billy Elliot,’ another great Elton John score, as well as Tim Rice’s ‘Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and ‘Avita,’ and his great, great cannon. So we were looking for a title that local audiences, especially that Broadway-going audience have had a good experience with. But also, there hasn’t been a major revival of ‘Aida.’ It was a big success on Broadway but it hasn’t been a major revival so it felt like a show that was right for bringing back. Also, it just provides a wealth of different skills that I think we have in town — there’s a rock band on stage, they’re not traditional musical theater players, they come from the rock band world. Putting together with actors and students from the university who are dance majors. We have circus artists in the show, we have people where music is their focus, or acting is their focus. So there’s all these skills that get to come together, which is why I love working in musical theater because it’s such a great fusion of a lot of different art forms. As well as designers, who we haven’t even mentioned — the fashion design in the show, and scenic design, lighting design and sound. So bringing those all together is really thrilling and I think ‘Aida’ is a great fusion of bringing all those things together in a pretty thrilling theatrical event.

What was your approach to taking something set in ancient Egypt but with a contemporary score — and contemporary movement?

Rothstein: I always think the balance of content and form is really fascinating, and what often I ask the design process is if these characters were left to their own devices, what tools would they have to tell their story? So, the tools of ancient Egypt and the tools of the Nubian characters are different — they express themselves differently, they dress themselves differently, their relationship to the Earth is different, their relationship between royalty and people is different in those cultures, so some of that is looking at historical references and a fun part of the process has been, OK, the score is very contemporary, it’s very pop, it’s very Elton John. And so to keep a foot in the contemporary world. The production begins and ends in an art museum in modern times, but we decided we would have that museum be kind of omnipresent, that we would always have one foot in the now. That while the clothes are influenced by African fashion and what we know of ancient Egyptian fashion, there’s also this constant foot in today. It’s almost like if a rock band today decided to tell a story about ancient Egypt, what would they dress like? What would they look like? So that’s been fun to make those two worlds coexist.

Austene, you play the title role of Aida. What about her character and what about the show made you want to be part of this production?

Van: Easy. Peter Rothstein. I didn’t really know, I mean, I’d heard about ‘Aida’ and I’d seen clips of it but I’d never been to Broadway to see the show and when it came into town, I never did see it. I got a call to audition and found out that Peter Rothstein was directing — and I became a fan of Peter when I saw him direct, ‘Once On This Island’ and it was absolutely gorgeous. I put it out there and I said, ‘Some day, some day (looks up) are you listening? (laughs) I would like to work with this man.’ So I wasn’t quite prepared for the audition but I came in anyway because I just wanted to see about it. But the night before I came in, I was started to gather some information about it and it was just beautiful and fascinating, and the Nubians and the Egyptians and the story about love and war and not being able to be together and slavery and oppression, I found . . .

Listen to the full interview online.


Theater Latté Da moves up to the Pantages Theatre with "Aida"

January 6, 2013By Morgan Halaska, TC Daily Planet.

Let me begin by saying that I've never been disappointed with a Theater Latté Da production (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spring Awakening), and January 5th's performance of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida was no exception—not in the slightest. Now in a partnership with Hennepin Theatre Trust for their Broadway Re-Imagined collaboration, Theater Latté Da is proving what exactly they're capable of (and to a large extent has already proved to most; they won an Ivey award for their 2012 production of Spring Awakening).

Aida first premiered on Broadway in 2000 as a Walt Disney production with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. The story of Aida existed before Disney though (a children's story and opera), but the plot does indeed scream Disney. Radames (Jared Oxborough), the captain of the ancient Egyptian army, and Aida (Austene Van), recent captor of the Egyptians and princess of the Nubian people (unbeknownst to Radames), fall, unlikely, in love with each other. Bruno Mars lookalike Mareb (Nathan Barlow) is the first to recognize Aida as the princess and rallies her to be the leader the Nubian captives need. The relationship between Radames and Aida is more complicated than just being on different sides of the war—Radames is set to marry Amneris (Cat Brindisi), the Pharoah's daughter, and Aida is her servant turned friend. Set in the backdrop of ancient Egypt, you can imagine it doesn't end well for the Radames and Aida. But despite the tragedy, the show ends on a hopeful note.

With slavery at the core of the storyline, Aida comes at a relevant time with movies like Django Unchained and Lincoln on the mind and mouths of people. Moreover, director Peter Rothstein does a beautiful job with the overall look and feel of the show. Halfway through the first act, there's a Cirque du Soleil-esque performance that captivated the audience. The amazing gymnastic feat is a microcosm of what I think Theater Latté Da does and continues to do in their productions, and exactly the reason they're taking hold of Twin Cities musical theater. And with their new relationship with Hennepin Theater Trust, I can't wait to see what's next.

"Aida" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

January 6, 2013.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

"Broadway Re-Imagined" is the title of the new collaboration between local musical theater company Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, which oversees the Hennepin Theatres (Orpheum, State, Pantages, and New Century), hosting many Broadway tours. In the first product of the collaboration, the 2000 Elton John/Tim Rice pop/rock musical Aida is re-imagined as a rock concert with some fantastic design elements. It's a much bigger production than Latte Da usually does - bigger stage, bigger venue, bigger set design; Aida is a big musical with a big sound. But director Peter Rothstein still gives it that Latte Da touch with interesting and innovative choices, and I loved it. I saw Aidaon tour and on Broadway on my very first trip to New York City in April of 2001, and while I don't remember much about the actual production, I've listened to and loved the soundtrack for twelve years. It's a fantastic (and Tony-winning) score, and it sounds amazing with the awesome onstage rock band and the (as usual) perfect cast assembled by Latte Da. The book is a little weak (maybe because it took three people to write it), but the compelling performances by the cast more than make up for it. All in all it's a wonderfully entertaining evening at the theater that's a feast for the eyes and ears.

The musical Aida is based on the 19th century opera of the same name by Guiseppi Verdi. It tells the fictional story of Radames (a captain of the Egyptian army), who falls in love with Aida (a slave who is actually the princess of Nubia, a nearby nation with which they are at war), despite the fact that he is engaged to marry the Egyptian Princess Amneris. Radames' father has concocted a plot to kill the Pharoah and marry his son to the heir of Egypt, and thereby control the country. But he has underestimated his son's love for this "slave," Aida's desire to free herself and her people, and Amneris' strength in ruling in her own right. I've never been a big fan of "love at first sight" stories (especially of the slave/master variety), but it soon becomes clear that Radames and Aida are very much alike - both living in the shadow of their father, unable to live their lives freely as they choose. Amneris, despite initially seeming shallow, is a sympathetic character, making for a love triangle with no happy ending.

The entire cast is superb, beginning with the three leads. Austene Van played a goddess in last summers A Night in Olympus at Illusion, and as Aida, she is a goddess. She has a regal voice and carriage that makes one wonder how anyone could not know that Aida is a princess. Her voice is stunning and her performance passionate as the woman torn between the man she loves and the people she would die for. Adam Pascal played Radames in the original Broadway cast (and also originated the role of Roger in my favorite musical RENT), and as much as I love him, his voice is not quite big enough for some of these sweeping pop ballads. So to hear someone like Jared Oxborough sing these songs is a revelation. He has a more musical theater type of voice with a gorgeous tone, but still gives it that rock edge. After listening to the OBC for twelve years, I finally know what these songs were supposed to sound like. Austene and Jared look and sound gorgeous together, with a believable chemistry.

Last but certainly not least: the third member of our love triangle. Simply put, Cat Brindisi is a star. She has dabbled her toe in the pool of New York City, and it's only a matter of time before she's snatched up and taken away from us to become a Broadway star. She follows her incredibly moving performance as Wendla in Spring Awakening last year with another stunner here. Her Princess Amneris is a cross between Glinda and Cleopatra. She first appears shallow, enjoying clothes and shopping and frivolous things. But it's soon revealed that she's deeper than she seems, eventually growing into the role of leader of her country, and Cat makes this transition believable and sympathetic. One of my favorite songs from the show is the super fun "(Dress Has Always Been) My Strongest Suit," and Cat sings the crap out of it. In contrast, "I Know the Truth" is a sobering moment of realization, serious and beautiful.

The show also features a couple of strong turns from supporting players. Nathan Barlow, a student in the U of M/Guthrie program, is one to watch. He impressed last fall in Measure for Measure with Ten Thousand Things (where there's nothing to hide behind), and he's quite charming here as the young Nubian man who recognizes Aida for who she really is and encourages her to fulfill her destiny. Ben Bakken as Radames' devious father is a scene-stealer with his two songs "Build Another Pyramid" and "Like Father Like Son." He really wails on these songs and sounds fantastic; it's now obvious to me why he won an Ivey for playing the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar (while I did see the show, it was on Ben's night off). The marvelous T. Mychael Rambo is underutilized in the ensemble and as Aida's father. He doesn't sing much except a few lines and a glory note, and even though I know Aida's father doesn't get a song, I was hoping they'd sneak one in somehow. It seems a shame to have T. Mychael Rambo in a show and not feature him!

As I mentioned, the band is onstage for the entire show, which I always love. Jason Hansen does an amazing job leading this group of musicians that look and sound like a rock band. The whole show really plays like a rock concert, with characters occasionally singing into microphones. I particularly loved Jared singing "Fortune Favors the Brave" while hanging with the band, and the gorgeous trio "A Step Too Far," with the three members of the love triangle singing into mics at the front of the stage. The choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell is really interesting and diverse, from the jerky movements of the soldiers, to the "Walk Like an Egyptian" style of "My Strongest Suit", to the thrilling African style dance of the Nubian people. A really beautiful aerial performance seems slightly out of place, but does serve to emphasize the extravagance of palace life in comparison to what's going on outside of it.

The set is spectacular, and when I looked in the playbill and saw the name Joel Sass (frequent designer/director at the Jungle, which has the best sets in town), I was not surprised. Backdrops and large pieces that move in and out, along with the use of screens and fabrics, represent various locations from the river to the palace. The costume design (Tulle & Dye) mixes modern with ancient, and Amneris' wardrobe is gorgeous and showy, and easily removable; her handmaids dress her up like a paper doll. This is not a historically accurate representation of ancient Egypt, rather it invokes the time period while matching the modern rock vibe of the score. (This is one of several elements that reminded me of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, another modern retelling of history that mixes the old and new.) I'm going to see the show again in a few days with my theater group, and I'm glad, because there's a lot going on; it's really impossible to take it all in on one viewing.

Back when I first saw Aida, before I started my Guthrie season subscription that led me into the world of local theater, I pretty much only saw the Broadway touring shows. I'm certain there are many people in that situation, unaware of the depth of theater talent right here in Minnesota. I hope that this partnership between Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust will draw people like that into the theater, thinking that they're going to see a Broadway tour (even the official Playbill looks like Broadway). Once they get inside they'll realize that this fabulous production is completely home-grown, which will hopefully encourage them to see more local theater, most of which happens off of Hennepin Avenue. That's the goal of this new partnership, and Aida is a successful first entry. Playing now through January 27 at the beautifully restored historic Pantages Theatre, check it out to get a taste of Broadway made in Minnesota. I can't wait to see what they're going to re-imagine next.*

Aida by Theater Latté Da, performing at the Pantages Theatre

January 5, 2013By John Olive, HowWasTheShow.

First the good: Aida (Theater Latté Da performing at the marvelous Pantages, through Jan 27) is a rippingly good show.  If you like full-bore, rock-’em-sock-’em musicals, Latté Da delivers the goods.  Anchored by a stirring Elton John/Tim Rice score (those soaring love duets!), the ageless story of doomed lovers in ancient Egypt has undeniable power.  The militaristic Radames, betrothed for nine years (!) to Princess Amneris, falls in love with the recently captured (and strangely reluctant to escape) Nubian princess Aida.  Looove sparks fly and when Amneris, inevitably, susses them out she locks Aida and Radames in a tomb, setting up a boffo Romeo And Juliet/Edgar Allan Poe ending.

Aida features a terrific performance by the exquisite Cat Brindisi as Amneris.  Tall, with an open expressive face and unassailable musical chops, Brindisi gives Amneris real substance (the opening “Every Story Is A Love Story”) while still playing (to the hilt) the girl-group camp of “My Strongest Suit”.  She is a major talent and herein lies a major reason to see Aida.  I recommend that you take advantage of the opportunity, before Brindisi moves on to greener (and more lucrative) pastures in New York or Los Angeles.

Good performances are also put forth by Jared Oxborough as Radames and Austene Van as Aida.  Both actors are terrific singers and both have compelling and charismatic presences.  Van beautifully captures Aida’s quandary: I love him – but I love my country as well; who should receive my allegiance?  Lovely.  I also greatly enjoyed the young Nathan Barlow as Mereb – a talent to watch.  As Zoser, Ben Bakken isn’t very fatherly, but he has a unique and compelling singing voice.   Performances are universally excellent.

Aida works.  If I’ve made it sound like something you would enjoy, and I hope I have, please stop reading this review, click on the above links, and make your rezzies.  You will have a good time.

Ahem. The show is also beset with problems, stemming largely from the blandness of the characters. The lovers Aida and Radames never blossom into compelling individuals (this in no way reflects upon the excellent performances of Van and Oxborough). The fathers remain ciphers and one, Amneris’s Dad, is a Wizard Of Oz, pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain voice. Without any specificity the music, however good, becomes generic in a distressing Andrew Lloyd Weber way. The story doesn’t grab as it should.

Director Peter Rothstein (also Latté Da’s artistic director) is massively gifted but he has tendencies toward fussiness and in this show he gives this full rein. Every scene has some sort of device: waving blue fabric to signify the Nile; shadow box scrims; abstract designs flying in and out; light boxes, models of boats. Etcetera. One can’t point to any of these and say, “This doesn’t work,” but the cumulative effect is to make the show feel overly busy – and slow. There is also, I should mention, an endless gymnastics performance midway through Act One. This doesn’t help.

Some of the design choices Rothstein and his designers have made are also problematic. In particular the costumes are don’t thrill: many of the Egyptians wear blue jeans and Sergeant Pepper coats. Others wear kilts, black knee high socks and garters. Amneris wears glittery 20th century gowns. The costumes don’t gel.

Okay. Got that out of my system. Despite these problems, Rothstein’s Aida provides many many pleasures. Latté Da is Minnesota’s premier purveyor of music theater. The Pantages is a grand venue, beautifully restored and small enough to make you feel like a real theater-goer (as opposed to a human sardine). My advice: see this one.

'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.

With "Aida," theaters step it up downtown

January 3, 2013.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Happy 2013. Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust leap into the new year with a production of "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida" that could redefine each company.

The Theatre Trust, mainly a presenter of touring Broadway shows, hopes to brand itself as a producer of local work. Latté Da assumes the challenge of filling a house that is more than three times larger than any theater in which the company previously has worked.

This ambitious effort, which opens Saturday at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, christens "Broadway Re-Imagined," an endeavor that banks on the artistic acumen of Latté Da director Peter Rothstein and the marketing muscle of Hennepin Trust. If "Aida" succeeds, Rothstein and trust president Tom Hoch envision annual productions and, potentially, tours.

"We have wanted to do this for a long time," said Hoch. "We think Peter is the right guy for this. He's great to work with and he keeps all the drama on stage."

Rothstein has assembled a cast that includes Austene Van in the title role, Chanhassen veteran Jared Oxborough as her doomed Egyptian lover Radames, and T. Mychael Rambo, Cat Brindisi, Ben Bakken and Nathan Barlow. Michael Matthew Ferrell, a frequent Latté Da collaborator, is choreographing and for the first time Joel Sass, who has a sharp scenic eye, has done the set design for Rothstein.

First things first, though. The Pantages, a lovely 1916 theater that was refurbished and reopened in 2002, has proven tough as a profitable venue. Repeated attempts to either transfer local shows or build new productions there have withered at the box office.

"Can we turn out the audience?" Hoch asked during a recent interview. "That's always the issue."

Yes and no. In the case of 2008's "Grease," it was about audience. Assumptions that a show that was a huge hit at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre would draw those fans downtown proved faulty. However, in 2003, cost overruns played a major role in the failure of Penumbra Theatre's "Black Nativity." Rehearsals were allowed to run overtime and labor costs skyrocketed. "Hair" in 2004 had a huge cast and even though it drew well, it did not break even.

Positive track record

Hoch has several reasons to consider "Aida" with cautious optimism. First, Rothstein's pre-Christmas staging of "All Is Calm" is the only show ever to post a profit in the Pantages. This year's six-performance run sold 5,373 tickets, or 90 percent capacity. Dovetailing with that, HTT's audience is familiar with downtown musical theater, and Hoch said "we can easily reach 250,000 people" through marketing machines.

Lastly, Rothstein's production sensibility comes out of small theater, which demands tight cost controls and meticulous planning.

"Peter totally understands that," Hoch said. "If we have to tell him we can't do certain things because of budget, that forces him to be magical. A big budget allows you to be sloppy."

Further, Latté Da's history indicates methodical growth, well-placed financial risks and artistic success. Five years ago, the company was producing in a 120-seat theater. Rothstein then targeted certain venues to gain exposure and audience growth -- the Ordway's McKnight Theatre and the Guthrie Studio being regular stops. Latté Da also did strategic partnerships, such as the "All Is Calm" production with HTT, a co-production of "Parade" with Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company that was staged in St. Paul's History Theatre, and last April's "Spring Awakening" with the University of Minnesota.

Still, "Aida" represents a considerable leap. Latté Da's biggest show ever, "Evita," sold 10,150 tickets at the McKnight. The ticket inventory for 19 performances of "Aida" at the Pantages will be nearly 19,000. Hoch estimates they will need to sell about 70 percent for success.

"My goal is to break even the first year," he said. "We can't afford to make any mistakes."

Rethinking the show

"Aida" has a checkered history. Panned on Broadway, it nonetheless ran for four years (a 2001 tour played the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis). A pastiche of competing musical and theatrical motifs, the show requires a strong vision.

John and Rice reinterpreted the doomed-love story, best known through Verdi's famous 1871 opera, with a rock/pop score that had nothing to do with ancient Egypt. Similarly, anachronisms fill the book, which was written by committee and resists cohesion. Two strangers meet in a modern museum, flip back to antiquity where they portray Aida and the Egyptian general Radames, and end up back in the museum.

Rothstein said he has chosen to embrace this ambiguity -- essentially removing the piece from the river of time. Costuming draws from contemporary dress and ancient Egyptian art; choreography switches from African ritual to modern music video posturing. The band, led by Jason Hansen, will be on stage, providing the flavor of a rock concert -- not unlike the aesthetic that animated "Spring Awakening."

"How do you make that contemporary sound fit the trappings of a show that is about a story in ancient Egypt?" Rothstein said. "It's the same way that Shakespeare is moved into modern settings."

Choreographer Ferrell said the mash-up of eras and styles allowed him greater freedom to let the show dance.

"I took traditional Nubian worship dance and infused it with a contemporary, lyrical style," he said. "The dance is so driven by emotion as opposed to technique, so this is a little different."

Looking ahead

Hennepin Theatre Trust has been using its New Century Theatre aggressively in the past two years to forge a relationship with local companies. Last fall, Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool did their show "2 Sugars, Room for Cream," downtown. Frank Theatre used the space last year, and Minneapolis Musical Theatre recently signed on to do its 2013 season. The "Broadway Re-Imagined" partnership raises the stakes considerably. Hoch says the hope is for the program to become self-sustaining, and he and Rothstein are not shy about their goal of producing shows that could go out on tour -- both regionally and nationally. Exporting work, Hoch said, would reinforce the Twin Cities' theater reputation.

"Chicago moves stuff all the time, but that's just not the culture here," Rothstein said. "If we create things that could go on to other cities, we speak to more people and we get money flowing back into the production."

Rothstein measured his words when asked about this ambitious quest in the Pantages, a theater with a spotty track record.

"I'm always worried about ticket sales," he said. "I spend a ginormous amount of my time thinking about programming, what might work, what title would work in this venue or that one.

"Hennepin Trust has a great history with 'Lion King,' 'Joseph,' 'Mamma Mia' -- shows built on modern pop."

In three weeks, we will know whether to include "Aida" on that list.

'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."