WHEN | WHERE Through June 23, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport
INFO $73 ($78 Saturday evenings); 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com
BOTTOM LINE A gutsy choice pays off with a stunning tale of ancient Egypt.
When Disney optioned a children’s book based on Verdi's majestic opera "Aida," the intention was to turn it into an animated film. But after "The Lion King," Elton John wasn’t keen on another movie, so the project went straight to becoming a musical, running on Broadway for more than four years but rarely done in regional theaters.
And with good reason. Despite the pedigree of its creators — music by John, lyrics by Tim Rice with David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") contributing to the book — "Aida" has never been able to make up its mind about what it wants to be. Campy parody? Tragic love triangle? Diatribe on slavery?
Let's just acknowledge it was gutsy of the John W. Engeman Theater to give "Aida" a shot — and happily the risk paid off. The Northport theater's production is a stunner, making the most of this problematic musical with an extraordinary cast and lofty production values.
Mostly it works because of the impressive performance of Kayla Cyphers in the title role, powerfully sung with a stirring combination of vulnerability and strength. With an old Egyptian myth at its heart, the show opens in a contemporary museum, with visitors wandering an exhibition about Amneris, "the female pharaoh."
In an instant, time travels backward and we’re in ancient Egypt, where army captain Radames (an appropriately conflicted Ken Allen Neely) has captured a group of Nubian women, among them the king's daughter, Aida. There’s instant attraction and an immediate problem: He’s engaged to the pharaoh's daughter Amneris (Jenna Rubaii, smartly playing the pampered princess to the hilt, though she eventually sees the light and denounces the oppression inflicted by her people). For the necessary comic relief, Chaz Alexander Coffin delights as Nubian slave Mereb.
The story unfolds in predictable fashion, with John's music ranging from the expected piano pop rock to Motown to full out gospel. Director-choreographer Paul Stancato has fun with an anachronistic vision of Amneris singing an ode to her wardrobe that ends with a fashion parade highlighting the creative work of costumer Kurt Alger. It plays out on the massive stone set by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, brightened with lovely, atmospheric lighting by John Burkland.
Remember, this is based on an opera, so there’s no happily ever after, unless you believe in reincarnation. In the end, we’re back in the modern museum, where a couple looking awfully familiar meets cute in front of a diorama of Amneris. To steal from another Disney epic, it’s a tale as old as time.