Desmon Walker and Christopher Kent do wonders for Elton John

Verdi Lite

A formidable trio of principals makes the Actors' Playhouse Aida a fabulously entertaining evening of theater. For those who already love the show, here is a chance to experience the Elton John-Tim Rice score persuasively, passionately sung and acted by Desmon N. Walker, Christopher A. Kent, and Melanie Penn -- as exciting a lineup as this show is likely to have. And in the case of Kent's Radames, an improvement on the original Broadway cast.

On the other hand, for those of us who find this dumbing-down of Verdi's opera more than a little appalling, David Arisco's production, conducted with zest by Eric Alsford, nearly convinces that the music is not as bad as it sounds. In short, Aida is one of the season's happiest surprises.

Desmon Walker is a smoldering, sexy Aida, assured and never less than fetching. Her dark mezzo makes for a stark contrast with Melanie Penn, who plays Aida's rival Amneris, a princess hailed as "first in beauty, wisdom, and accessories." Penn is, well, adorable, with plenty of vocal reserves and substantial oomph. It is Amneris who brings out the best in John and in Rice, who here approaches the heights of his lyrics not only for Andrew Lloyd Webber in Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita but also for Stephen Oliver in their cult gem Blondel.



Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

Music by Elton John; lyrics by Tim Rice; book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang. Directed by David Arisco. With Christopher A. Kent, Desmon N. Walker, and Melanie Penn. Through April 10. 305-444-9293.

Christopher Kent -- who, come to think of it, would make a great Blondel -- leaves behind the score's rock pretensions and sings the music beautifully, with flattering results. Kent has just the right timbre for this genre, with impulsive phrasing and sensitive timing that bring to mind such West End stars as Paul Nicholas and Michael Ball. His Radames is terrific. And his modern young man in Prologue and Epilogue, an out-of-the-blue derivative device crammed in to avoid the otherwise unavoidable tragic ending, is a touching and simple dramatic creation.

Walker, Penn, and Kent are in good company. Darren Matthias, in the irredeemable role of Radames's father, makes a strong vocal impression. There are some weak links in the cast, but also some standouts, including electrifying dancing by Gio Macia and scene-stealing ensemble work by Martin Samuel. M.P. Amico's sliding-panel sets are elegant if a little monotonous. Mary Lynne Izzo's costumes, executed on the cheap, are especially unflattering to the men and downright criminal to poor Radames. The eight-piece pit orchestra, not least Andrea Gilbert's reeds, is hot.

Adaptations of operas are nothing new. There really ought to be a moratorium on any new version of Carmen, for example. But the profitable rape of La Boheme by Rent on Broadway must have been enough for the Disney organization to salivate at the idea of cobbling together an even bigger hit musical from an even grander opera. No harm in that, actually. Also not bad was bringing in Elton John, composer of "Your Song," "Benny and the Jets," and also The Lion King. But few would have foretold how disappointing Sir Elton's contribution would turn out to be. The first signs of trouble came with Linda Woolverton's hackwork book, an unnecessary complication of Antonio Ghislanzoni's 1870 original (uncredited in the current Aida program, incidentally, his name banished along with Verdi's own). The original love triangle -- a captured Nubian princess, her Egyptian counterpart, and the dashing young general they both love -- remained from the opera; but unnecessary back story and characters diluted the concise tale of impossible conflicts of love and country, themes Verdi explored throughout his career.

Improvements happened along the way in the new Aida, from its notorious 1998 Atlanta opening to the arrival on Broadway in 2000. Robert Falls, an intelligent director, acquired co-writing credits. So did David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly. Hwang is a bona-fide expert on matters of colonial oppression and post-colonial attitudes, a sensitive writer whose libretto for Philip Glass's underrated The Voyage already had mined the dramatic and philosophical possibilities of the clash of conquering and conquered cultures. Add to this the lyrics of Tim Rice, surely the wittiest musical wordsmith this side of Hal David, and Aida could have been wonderful.

It wasn't. In his first complete score written for the stage, Sir Elton left behind his knack for genuinely touching melodies or even for solid pop hooks, resorting instead to that pseudo-soul sound Brits seem so fond of. It is the kind of thing Andrew Lloyd Webber does well (though he has moved on) but that few others seem to manage. Save for the lovely "Every Story Is a Love Story," sung by the Egyptian princess Amneris at the beginning and end of the show, John's score for Aida is a shapeless, forgettable swath of substandard pop. The numbers for Radames's father and his sidekicks are the worst, but nearly all songs somehow end with the sort of screamfest that passes for singing on television's American Idol. Cynical schlock, basically. Eminently forgettable, too. It was a remarkable feature of the original Broadway production that one truly came out whistling the sets, since it was Bob Crowley's breathtaking evocations of the banks of the Nile that came closest to touching hearts and minds.

Without those monumental sets, what can Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables possibly do? Quite a lot, it turns out. For one, it is terrific to experience a musical up-close at the Miracle Theater, a house vastly better suited for singing and acting than that barn named after Jackie Gleason. Bigger is not always better: Verdi's Aida is certainly not at its best in Verona's huge arena, and perhaps the way to discover the virtues of Elton John's Aida is in just such a scaled-down version as this one in the Gables. Especially when, just so we're clear on this, there is no scaling down on talent.


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