Tag Archives: Ashlyn Summer

Triumphant “Aïda” Cast Slogs Through Tedious Sir Elton Score

Review: Aïda

By Perry Tannenbaum

Strip away the triumphal march, the trumpets, and the whole processional parade – complete with elephants, if you’re lucky enough to see the famed outdoor productions in Verona – and we discover that Verdi’s Aïda is a rather compact story. The captured Ethiopian princess is at one corner of the love triangle, opposite her slavemistress, Princess Amneris. Both of them love Radamès, the dynamic Egyptian general who is ordained by the goddess Isis to lead the Pharaoh’s army against the forces led by King Amonasro, Aïda’s father.

Pulling against the strong Aïda-Radamès chemistry are their loyalties to their warring countries, the jealousy of Amneris, and the obedience that Aïda owes to her father. Sealing their fates, Pharoah rewards Radamès for capturing Amonasro in battle by promising his daughter’s hand in marriage to the victorious chieftain.

It’s fascinating to watch how Linda Woolverton modernizes the 1871 libretto in her book for the Disney version currently running at Theatre Charlotte – with a couple of deft feminist touches layered on.

Raised on soaps and romcoms, modern audiences could never abide a torrid relationship between romantic leads already established before the curtain rises. So Woolverton efficiently wedges a mini-courtship into her storyline, with Radamès giving Aïda to Amneris as a gift to lighten his beloved’s sufferings in captivity.

Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni were perfectly content to portray Amneris as a cunning, vicious shrew from beginning to end. Not Woolverton. She gives the beautiful princess a slick character arc in a thorough makeover, starting her off as a vain and pampered clothes horse on loan from Legally Blonde. Amneris evolves into a peace-loving reformer who not only empathizes with the martyred lovers but also narrates their story, three or more millennia later, returning in mummified form, a shining presence in a gooey stew of museum mystery and reincarnation.

If composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice had done their jobs as well as Woolverton, Aïda would be a masterwork. It’s often amusing to see what John, Rice, and Theatre Charlotte do to compensate for the absence of Verdian spectacle – but it’s never thrilling, despite the collection of talent that director Corey Mitchell has assembled at the Queens Road barn. John’s parade of power ballads grows tedious as the evening wears on, and the longueurs are compounded by unnecessary outbreaks of dance that, notwithstanding choreographer Ashlyn Summer’s exertions, display little precision and less sensuality.

Mitchell previously directed this show for Northwest School of the Arts with a little more sparkle, orchestra, and budget – a production that ran briefly at Booth Playhouse in 2009. Maybe Sir Elton’s Aïda works better in the hands of high schoolers. The one holdover from the NWSA edition, Emily Witte as Amneris, is even more stunning this time around, most notably when she hits us with the full force of her arrogance in her “My Strongest Suit” showcase. It’s the kind of superficial villainy that will deeply satisfy fans of Wicked, Glee, and Kristin Chenoweth.

There is a slight country twang to Witte’s singing that would have added a bit of unique abrasiveness to Amneris, but music director Zachary Tarlton encourages the same style from Ron T. Diaz as Radamès, so that twang becomes an Egyptian trait – as if, in Disneyworld, everybody who hails from Memphis, whether it’s Egypt or Tennessee, sounds alike.

Further detracting from the gravitas Diaz should be aiming for is Radamès’ bizarre confrontation with his father, the evil priest Zoser. You wonder just how seriously we can take either adversary when costume designer Hali Hutchison seems to be mimicking Disney’s Aladdin in designing the mighty general’s costume and Zoser’s ministers brandish glowing fuchsia staves.

Diaz never gets a shot at a passionate solo, so he shines brightest in “Elaborate Lives,” sharing the best of the power ballads with his darling Aïda. They sing it full out, face-to-face, no frills, near the end of Act 1, Victoria Fisher’s lighting dimming around them to augment the drama. Maya Sistruck does nearly the whole evening as Aïda with a simple resolute dignity, allowing herself the luxury of discernable facial expressions only at peak moments when she is romantically consumed or royally pissed.

Other than taking radical precautions not to reveal her royal origins, I’m not sure what justifies Hutchison’s humble sackcloth design for a captive princess. We do upgrade to red in the palace, but why Amneris would tolerate such a plainly dressed servant is still baffling. Yet the illogic does pay off in an enduring dramatic contrast, first in the climactic tête-à-tête duet before intermission and shortly afterwards in the “Step Too Far” trio, the most self-consciously operatic moment in the John-Rice score.

Aïda is simply better and purer than these Egyptians are – not Memphis or Nashville at all! – and just knowing her ultimately makes them better and purer.

While Josh Webb’s set design is no more impressive than the costumes or the choreography, budgetary constraints may have been holding him back. The cut-rate budget and the lackluster score might obscure the fact that the excellence of the cast runs deep. Aside from most of the dancers, Howl Cooper makes the only inauspicious debut as Amonasro, though he definitely has a warrior’s demeanor.

Jason Hickerson makes a wonderfully scruffy Pharaoh, a Charlotte debut only slightly eclipsed by Carlos Jimenez’s usefully cheerful depiction of Mereb, the perfect Disney servant. Implausibly, Mereb draws more solo spotlight than Radamès, yet Jimenez is decisively upstaged among the supporting players by the steely-voiced Paul Leopard, fulminating melodramatically as the murderous, conniving Zoser.

Thank heaven for vampires, witches, and pagans. Otherwise, there would be no class of people left for all of us to wholeheartedly hate.

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Bravura Aplenty in Theatre Charlotte’s “Memphis”

Review:  Memphis

By Perry Tannenbaum

As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.

Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.

Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.

Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.

 

Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.

What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.

I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.

Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.

But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.

Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.

It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.