Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida

Austene Van (Aida) and Jared Oxborough (Radames). Photo by Michal Daniel.

Austene Van (Aida) and Jared Oxborough (Radames). Photo by Michal Daniel.

In the new production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, the Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theater Latté Da present us with an excellent performance of a deeply problematic musical. The show opens a new collaborative series between the HTT and Latté Da called Broadway Re-Imagined, which casts local Minnesota talent in high-profile Broadway shows under Peter Rothstein‘s direction, rather than relying primarily on touring companies from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. It is a smart move, since Aida  proves that we have no need to look elsewhere; with the abundance of talent on the Pantages stage, you will quickly forget that this is not the Broadway touring cast.

Leading the pack is Austene Van as the title character, an enslaved Nubian princess whose forbidden love affair with her captor is the musical’s central conflict. Van has the kind of powerful singing voice that calls a full audience to attention, and she backs up her vocal abilities with a strong physicality and expressive face that take us believably into her struggles between love, loyalty, and duty. Jared Oxborough is less magnetic as Radames, her love interest: though his singing is also irreproachable, his moral transformation is unconvincing and occasionally had me wondering whether his actions were motivated by genuine love or simple lust for perceived exoticism.

Speaking of transformations, Cat Brindisi is a vocal and theatrical scene-stealer as Amneris, the future Pharaoh whose betrayal by Radames motivates her to grow from vapid fashionista to competent ruler. Although her part is not fully fleshed out in the script, Brindisi takes Amneris seriously as she learns to think critically not only about her fiancé, but also about the problematic source of her prized accessories and her future role as a leader.

The ensemble cast all deliver energetic and engaging performances, including the top-notch on-stage orchestra and some stand-out acrobatics by José Bueno and Justen Pohl. (I can’t say the two chiseled men in skin-tight pants undulating into gravity-defying poses around an aerial hoop has anything to do with Aida‘s plot or thematic approach, but I certainly won’t complain.)

Despite the overall excellence of the entire cast and design team, some elements of the play itself made me downright uncomfortable, beginning with the choice to uncritically cast white actors in the roles of the Egyptian masters, with most of the Nubian slaves played by non-white performers. Although this may have been the casting in the original Broadway production (and, quite possibly, the intent of the opera on which it was based), the narrative in which the exotic slave woman transforms her white master is tired and borders on offensive – even more so in this script, because Aida’s love for Radames comes across as fairly unmotivated.

If the racial implications are problematic, so too are the gender dynamics, with an opening number that strays uncomfortably close to sexual violence without doing enough to condemn the perpetrators in the eyes of the audience. As the male ensemble rounds up a group of cowering female slaves to the repeated tune of “fortune favors the brave,” I could only hope that the line was meant critically (but feared that it was not given a second thought). The power difference between Radames and Aida also leads to some moments where implications of rape and reluctant consent are played for the relief of the audience – oh, of course the half-naked Radames was just going to make Aida wash his back, because he’s secretly such a great guy (how could we possibly have imagined someone would take advantage of a privileged position in such a despicable way?).

My initial urge is to reproach myself for being so critical of the politics of musical theatre – a genre that, like opera before it, exists in large part for the entertainment value of a good tug at our collective heartstrings. But in a medium with such a powerful capacity to elicit strong emotion, why shouldn’t we expect more? Musical theater – and indeed, the title “Broadway Re-Imagined” itself – holds a rich potential for bold, provocative choices. Now that the local direction and performers have proven themselves to be more than capable of winning their audience’s sympathies, they have an opportunity to challenge the Broadway classics and ask more interesting questions of their viewers. Let’s see how far this “re-imagining” is willing to go.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theater Latté Da, performed by the Hardcover Theater at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Avenue, Mpls., 55403. January 3–27, 2012.  Tickets $24-$59 (subject to change) depending on performance time and seating preference. Tickets may be purchased in person at the State Theatre Box Office (805 Hennepin Avenue, Mpls.,55402, no service fees), online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org or through Ticketmaster by calling 1.800.982.2787.

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