All Set

The set design is the real star of Aida

First, let me confess that I'm an Elton John fan. OK, so I've overdosed on "Your Song" and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight;" nevertheless, I'll still stop what I'm doing to listen to "Tiny Dancer," "Candle in the Wind," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" or "The One." I can hardly think of a better song about parenthood than "Blessed" (though there's close competition from John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" and Jimmy Buffet's "Little Miss Magic") and one of my favorite sports while I'm driving down the highway with the radio playing is trying to figure out just what "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is really about. I don't pretend that John's lyrics always serve him well, but when it comes to writing melodies, the diminutive British maestro is surely up there with the very best of them. Why am I telling you this? Because when I say that John's music in Walt Disney's Aida is second rate, I want you to understand that I'm speaking not as a skeptic but as a believer. I walked into the Carol Morsani Hall of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center expecting a group of melodies at least as affecting as those in The Lion King, and what I got instead was the parade of the cuts that you skip in search of the winners. Fortunately, the production has a lot of things going for it: performers with fine voices, beautiful sets, wonderfully imaginative costumes. But in a show that's mostly about music — 18 songs, some of them reprised — it matters that the tunes are so eminently forgettable. And if you're a fan like me, you can't help but be disappointed.

And there's something else about the production that's bothersome. The script (by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang), loosely based on Verdi's opera, references issues of human freedom, interracial love, nationalism, colonialism and more, and yet never manages to do more than touch the surface of these important questions. The Lion King was about the difficulties of becoming an adult, Beauty and the Beast was about seeing through appearances to deeper realities, but this Disney offering doesn't seem to be about anything, not for more than a few moments. How can three hours of a musical on such subjects be so unprovocative? I don't know, but Aida manages.

About the plot: Aida is a Nubian princess captured by the Egyptian troops of Captain Radames. He sends her to be handmaid to his fiancee, Amneris, a bubble-headed fashion plate who is Pharaoh's daughter. Radames falls in love with Aida and the two become lovers. When Aida's father, King Amonasro, is captured by the Egyptians, she works out a plan to help him escape during Radames' wedding. The escape comes off, with Radames' help, but the two lovers are found out and arrested for treason.

For those not familiar with the Verdi opera, I'll refrain from saying what happens next. I will note, however, that the musical has a surprising, clever epilogue that allows one to feel hopeful about these likable but star-crossed lovers.

The play is fundamentally about a love triangle, and so a great deal depends on the actors playing Aida, Radames and Amneris. And the news here is good. Paulette Ivory as Aida has a wonderful voice, and all the pride and independent spirit that one might expect of a princess. Jeremy Kushnier as Radames is every bit the strong-willed but tenderhearted soldier, and Lisa Brescia as Amneris adds some good-natured humor to a mostly serious story.

The subsidiary characters are almost as good as the leads. Former Monkee Mickey Dolenz is just fine as Radames' father Zoser (though his role in the play's subplot, as the man who's poisoning Pharaoh, never really seems justified) and Eric L. Christian is delightful as Radames' Nubian servant Mereb. In short, this is a terrific cast, and one that delivers itself over to every song with so much verve that you want to applaud them just for the effort.

But the real center of Aida is the set design by Bob Crowley, who also designed the many colorful, inventive costumes. True, these sets aren't nearly as inspired as those of The Lion King; but they are, nevertheless, stunningly beautiful at times, a real gift for the eyes. Some of my favorites: the Egyptian wing of a modern museum, in which the play begins; a view of the wide Nile, with two tree lines, one "real," one reflected; and a prison made up of op-art cubes like an Escher drawing. Natasha Katz's lighting is superb, particularly when she directs spotlights at characters otherwise surrounded by darkness. And Wayne Cilento's choreography, if not as interesting as the play's sets or costumes, at least doesn't distract from the production's visual splendors.

But where's the splendid music? It's incomprehensible to me that Elton John, of all people, could write 18 songs for this effort, and not one of them is of the quality of "Daniel" or "Levon" or even "Believe." Aida is mostly song, after all — sometimes the book consists of just a few words between tunes — and the show has to stand or fall on its melodies.

These melodies are the throwaways, the ones you ignore while whistling the ones you'll never forget.

But those winners aren't here. And so there's a cavernous hole in this Aida.

FSU Ups the Ante A meeting this Wednesday, March 12, may be the last chance for Florida State University administrators to change their minds about moving the FSU/Asolo Conservatory from Sarasota to Tallahassee. And that move, if it happens, may come as soon as this autumn — rather than in 2005, as originally announced.According to Ron Greenbaum, president of the Asolo board of directors, several persons representing the Asolo are to meet Wednesday in the state's capital with the FSU President and Provost (and possibly Steven Wallace, Dean of the School of Theatre). The meeting will be mediated by Lisa Carlton, the state senator whose district includes Sarasota. According to Greenbaum, there's no limit to what the persons assembled might dicker about: "Everything's on the table."

But there's reason to be concerned that FSU is now thinking of pulling out of Sarasota even earlier than originally announced. Two weeks ago, Conservatory students met with Dean Wallace in Sarasota and were told that he's fighting a holding action, trying to keep the school in Sarasota till 2005. According to a second-year student who asked not to be named, "Dean Wallace told us that the climate in Tallahassee is such that if they get any resistance from Asolo Inc. [on the subjects of] financial support for students — assistantships, London, tuition waivers which Asolo Inc. currently pays — the students may get an e-mail in the middle of the summer, telling us we may have classes in Tallahassee in the fall." She said Wallace also warned the students not to send any more "negative" letters to Tallahassee and added that "he has given up hope for FSU/Asolo Conservatory to remain in Sarasota. Period. He said he's now fighting to keep it in Sarasota until 2005 as he promised."

Is FSU fishing for a reason to skip town? The Sarasota Herald-Tribune recently reported that the terms of the Asolo's lease on its building may now be a paramount problem. If so, that's an issue no one was talking about when the original announcement of the move was made. And there's something ominous in the fact that no one who represents the Conservatory was asked to participate in the March 12 meeting. I asked Greenbaum if he knew the real issue separating FSU and the Asolo. "We'll find out," he said.

There's a lot riding on this meeting. And it's not at all clear which issues are negotiable and which are the deal breakers.

Stay tuned.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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