Singing the Queen's Praises

It's not perfect and it needs work, but there's a lot to enjoy in Nefertiti: A Musical Romance. Billed as a new musical, but an entire generation in the making, this production bears a history as fascinating as the ancient Egyptian love story it traces. The creation of Nefertiti has intertwined both gay history and musical legend, a chimera over which fans of the Broadway musical still deliberate; in short, it's an unsolved enigma. This intriguing project now showing at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale has its sights set on a New York run. Under the loving direction of Robert Johanson, the three star performers -- Nicole Leach, Ann Crumb, and Nicholas Rodriguez -- are allowed to shine.

Based on ancient historical events, the story tracks the life of a strong, stunningly attractive woman who marries an unusual pharaoh, Akhenaten. The physically handicapped, spiritually formidable monarch believes in one god instead of many (his Sun worship providing the first recorded instance of monotheism). His beautiful wife Nefertiti becomes a powerful consort and ally, although she was originally promised to Akhenaten's father. The couple's will to love each other against all odds and the struggles they encounter in their fight against corruption furnish inspiration for the musical.

The show was first produced as an off-Broadway showcase in 1976. The following year a big-budget production in Chicago flopped. It was a cult favorite by 1988, the year that marked a tragic, bittersweet chapter in American musical history when Christopher Gore, Nefertiti's lyricist and mastermind, died of an AIDS-related illness. It would take an actual archaeologist to sift through the layers of who did what and when to bring the latest version of Nefertiti to the stage, but likely the late Gore's disarmingly poetic spirit gets most of the credit, sparking David Spangler's music, a new book by Rick Gore and Spangler, and a collection of touching lyrics.

Akhenaten's song of hope and hymn to the sun near the end of Act One, a high point in the show, embodies not only the creators' generous vision of the legendary Egyptian pharaoh but also, in retrospect, that of the young AIDS warrior who searched for meaning and comfort in a world that often threatens both. "Fate is not our enemy," sings Gore's frail renegade, "The future is our friend.../I see at last what we could be/I see what we could do."

At best, Nefertiti in 2005 remains an intelligent and often touching attempt to make sense of burning questions that have puzzled humanity for millennia: Can one god or even several ever explain our place in the universe? Must we find meaning in ourselves, out in the open, under the sun? Never mind that the historical Akhenaten, like most monotheists after him, set about to demolish the temples of everyone else's religions. If Spangler and the brothers Gore find a connection between faith in one god and tolerance, bless them. If they can sing about that hope, applaud them. The driving force behind Nefertiti is far nobler than that from which other pop-rock musicals are created, including Elton John's overrated Aida. And the music is at least as superior.

I simply wish I could honor the production with more praise. However, the score boasts stretches of natural, easy recitative but few memorable melodies, in spite of considerable help from Karl-Johan Ankarblom and Nils-Peter Ankarblom's elegant and lively orchestrations. The book is unfocused, unsure of how to illustrate the title character's timid love interest in the pharaoh's general, Hap. Perhaps that can be fixed with a little tinkering. The chorus of six or seven, for all of its excellent beefcake, needs more vocal muscle: Over-amplified, it still sounds like three guys singing. A little of what the industry calls enhancement money would also work wonders for Michael Anania's sets, modest and attractive in Act One but strictly community theater thereafter.

The acting is somewhat of a mixed bag. The less said about the irritating young actors playing Tut at various ages the better. Larry Robinson is loud but silly as the high priest Shabak, and George Merner little better as Nefertiti's nasty father. The wailing Avery Sommers, who plays the Queen's elderly nanny, seems to have stepped in from a UPN comedy and just waits onstage for her next chance to scream. Paula Abdul might call her pitchy. As the hunky Hap, Alan H. Green may have the pecs but not the charisma to make sense of Nefertiti's lust.

On the positive side is the trio of leading roles. Nicholas Rodriguez brings pathos and passion to Akhenaten, a difficult role in which this singing actor portrays depth merely suggested in the script. Nicole Leach is a vocally fetching, physically stunning Nefertiti even if -- partly owing to the streamlined book -- she never quite dominates the stage in the manner of a legendary Egyptian queen. Ann Crumb is simply sensational. Playing Akhenaten's mother Tiye, Crumb commands every scene she visits with sly humor and a sexy, powerful voice. With another number, she could steal the whole show.

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