The Column Online



Music By Elton John, Lyrics By Tim Rice
Book By Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang

The Firehouse Theatre

Director- Derek Whitener
Musical Director- Brina Palencia
Choreographer- Quintin Jones
Assistant Director-Leah Clark
Assistant Musical Director- Jared West
Assistant Choreographer-Ania Lyons
Set Designer- Wendy Rene'e Searcy
Costume Designer- Victor Newman Brockwell
Lighting Designer- Cassondra Plybon-Harbin
Stage Manager- Kim Velten
Assistant Stage Manager- Mason Bunkleman
Props Designer/Fight Choreographer- Adam Kullman
Sound Designer-Daniel Bergeron
Technical Director-Jason Leyva
Master Carpenter-Dennis Williams
Conductor-Brina Palencia
Violin-Mara Borer
Drums-Michael Ptacin
Guitar-Gilbert Glenn
Flute-Shannon Lotti
Percussion-Josh Parker
Bass-Tyler Kysar, Max Rohde
Keyboards-Jared West, Bryce Biffle

Aida -Imani Ani
Radames- Rare Orion
Amneris- Danielle Estes
Amonasro-Gen Donnell
Zoser- Craig Boleman
Pharaoh- Greg Phillips
Mereb- Zachary J. Willis
Nehebka- Sydney Cornelius
Nubian Ensemble: Marquette Burnett, Elizabeth Coleman, Kevin Davis Jr, Gen Donnell, Natassia Diggs, Alicia Marie Douglas, Rachel Herbert, Trace Hughes, Mudibu Rita Nsumbu.
Egyptian Soldiers: Marquette Burnett, Will Cheek, Derril Lasseigne, Ryan C. Machen, Blake Seabourn, Zach Sharp.
Egyptian Handmaidens: Carissa Aguila, Christina Austin Lopez, Cayley Davis, Mary Margaret Flaming, Kimberly Moore.

Reviewed Performance: 9/8/2018

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

My brain is not normal by any means and should be studied. When it comes to a musical or play that I have seen on Broadway, it will retain, record, and file the entire show in my encephalon. Thus, when I hear the score or see that show again in a national tour or on a local stage, the cerebrum becomes a playback and I automatically remember that original Broadway production that I attended, from the visuals to the emotions I experienced that evening.

But ask my brain to remember if I paid that dang VISA card or if I balanced my meager bank account this month, and like a host from Westworld, it just shuts down, only to flash across my eyes, “Does not compute” and elevator music starts to blast.

After I see a Broadway show I begin to think how it will change when it goes out on the road. Once I see the national tour of said production, then I ponder how theaters in the area will create their own visions of the show.

I have a very (and I mean VERY) select group of Broadway shows that I have seen that I knew would become a once in a lifetime experience. Those that I knew were Broadway history in the making. Or, as I watched, you sensed that you are seeing unparalleled, beyond comparison performances that will be talked about for years. When everything lines up in the magic of theater and you are emotionally experiencing along with everyone else in the dark something that defines logic. That is rare-VERY rare-on Broadway.

This very special personal selected list of original Broadway productions that fulfill those qualifications for me that I have experienced include Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Rent, La Cage Aux Follies, Dreamgirls, Doubt, Take Me Out, Torch Song Trilogy, The Producers, Spring Awakening, Moulin Rouge The Musical (even though its only had its Boston tryout so far), and Elton John’s Aida.

I saw the original Broadway production of Aida on the very weekend it opened on Broadway back in March 2000. Elton John’s pop, soul, and gospel flavored score was epic and emotional. It’s trio of electrifying stars Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, and Sherie Rene Scott with those mega lung power vocals had that audience SCREAMING! The vocals of Headley and Pascal shook the Palace theatre walls. The cast recording is one thing, but hearing them live on stage, it was surreal. Pascal’s rock voice with those impossibly incredible high tenor notes, Headley with that god given, hurricane gust like belting soprano voice that could sustain for endless measures. And these two can belt like so very few can even do to this today. Their raw, sexual chemistry dripped erotic steam. In an interesting backstory, Pascal actually replaced the original actor who played Radames after the Atlanta try out when Aida reopened for its Chicago run. Once Elton John had the vocal talents of Pascal and Headley, he not only wrote new numbers, but changed the keys specifically to match these one of kind voices. As for Sherie Rene Scott, her transformation from hilarious blonde goddess to a devastated woman was a punch in the heart to watch. All this created that once in a lifetime experience I still remember vividly.

It was a shock to Broadway insiders when the show did not receive a Tony Award nomination for Best musical that season. But on awards night it took home Best original score, Best Scenic Design, and Best Actress in a Musical for Headley.

Aida would have the final laugh against the Tonys. It would become a financial box office hit, closing after 1852 performances. The musicals that were nominated for Best musical that year all shuttered way as Aida continued to play to sold out house. Most of them flopped. James Joyce’s The Dead closed after 120 performances, Swing! (461 performances), and The Wild Party (68 performances). The winner for Best Musical, Contact closed after 1010 performances.

Aida is NOT an easy musical to mount for any theater. You need two principals with impossibly incredible singing voices that will do grand vocal justice to Sir John’s score, peel deep into Tim Rice’s lyrics with rich subtext, and have honest, heated chemistry for an interracial couple. After 17 years since it opened on Broadway, you have audiences that only have the cast recording as reference. So, they are going to want a cast that can match as close as possible (especially the principals) to that recording. It’s the truth. Then you need a full, rich African American ensemble as they have the biggest company numbers in the score. Add lavish costumes (including a runway show of fierceness) , grand sets, lighting, and an orchestra that can pull off the music composed from one of the greatest living rock legends of our time. Well, maybe that’s why it’s hardly ever produced here within the DFW area.

In fact, only two DFW theater companies have taken the challenge of mounting full productions of Aida, one equity (Uptown Players) and one non-equity (Plaza Theater Company). Both which I saw and reviewed. Now The Firehouse Theatre has taken the challenge with their vision of Aida, which I saw Saturday evening (9/8/18).

This is what the part what I dislike in being a critic, as I know what it is like to be behind the curtain. I am not here to tear down art but support it. But art is subjective. And I must be honest, as tough as that might be.

I applaud the Firehouse Theatre profusely for taking this artistic challenge, I sincerely do. But the production can best be described as frustrating. Just when it started to get its rhythm (emotionally, vocally, technically, etc.) something would mess up, trip up, go sharp, look wrong, go out of place, be out of sync, etc. thus killing the moment, or the number went wrong. This required them to regroup and rebuild again, only to repeat the pattern again. It was perplexing on why this kept happening over and over as the evening went on.

Director Derek Whitener has directed some stellar productions in the DFW metroplex. I still consider his direction and production of the musical Spring Awakening the best one done so far in the DFW metroplex. His direction of Cabaret was also another artistic hit. Earlier this year I observed his beautiful work in Gypsy (also at The Firehouse Theatre). For Aida I was perturbed with the staging and blocking. For example, when it came to the musical numbers, the principals and supporting cast were staged to stand face out and sing. Because this is such an intimate space and they are all body mic’ed, they could have spent much more time looking and reacting to each other. I greatly missed the subtext of lyric, voice, chemistry, and the staging of actors looking and reacting to each other a lot more due to them staged facing out and singing into the house. It was disheartening.

Another issue was during some soft solo lines, or quiet book moments that were occurring on stage you were immediately distracted by a ramp scraping on the floor, set pieces being moved, etc. Thus, taking you completely out of the moment. One final example, while I got it, I could tell much of the audience didn’t (at least on the night I attended). During “My Strongest Suit” for the fashion runway section there was the addition of Billy Porter’s character Pray Tell from FX’s Pose, plus its judges. At first, I loved the concept, but then it slowly started to crumble. The actor playing Pray Tell did not ad-lib enough, have killer shade, or sell the concept, so there was all this dead air. I also didn’t “get “why the girls first came out from the wing (there by revealing their fashions), then go backstage to make their entrance on the mini-runway. Finally, the wedding gown scene. I admire that Whitener borrowed the original concept from the Broadway version. In fact, every production I’ve seen of Aida both here in Dallas and Austin has done so as well. This is where the handmaidens dress Amneris in her wedding gown and headdress as she sings “I Know The Truth”. This should be rehearsed a million times due to the vital importance of the number. It should not be distracting but done almost in ghost like fashion. Unfortunately, in the middle of this power ballad as the headdress was placed on Amneris’s (Danelle Estes) head, either it wasn’t placed right, or someone stepped on the veil behind her, but something caused Ms. Estes to reach with both her hands to hold up the tall head piece. It caused the couple behind me to snicker, and it took me out of the moment.

However, I will say that Whitener’s staging of the “Elaborate lives” reprise, the scenes with the Nubian cast, and the final Tomb/museum scenes were wonderfully emotional. There were other moments and scenes that worked really well. I just so desperately wished the entire show did.

Musical Director Brina Palencia and her nine-piece orchestra took my breath away all evening long. Nothing beats-NOTHING-like live musicians playing and bringing a score to life-especially this Tony award winning score! These musicians energized Sir John’s score to lush vitality. They had a soothing violinist and wicked percussions and drums in that pit! There was a moment in “Strongest Suit” where I noticed that the soloist jumped ahead in the music coming back from the runway underscore. The orchestra is placed above the set but is still visible. I saw a gentle nod from one of the musicians ( I could be wrong, but it looked like Assistant Musical Director Jared West) as to let them know what had occurred. And without missing a beat, they all matched up and came right on the downbeat to match the vocalist! I’m positive no one notice it, but as someone who is fixated with this score and show, I did-so kudos to the slick professionalism of these musicians, who are: Mara Borer (Violin), Drums (Michael Ptacin), Gilbert Glenn (Guitar), Shannon Lotti (Flute), Josh Parker (Percussion), Tyler Kysar and Max Rohde (Bass), Jared West and Bryce Biffle (Keyboards).

The choreography by Quintin Jones was a complete surprise in that he painted broad, brave new artistic risks in several numbers with his choreography that I’ve never seen in this musical. The verdict? Outstanding. Just absolutely outstanding. To choreograph all that movement within the snug space speaks volumes on the talents of this choreographer. For the numbers “Another Pyramid” and “Like Father and Like Son” he has the Egyptian Ministers doing a mixture of vigorous choreography that include gymnastics and even canes thrown in (an homage to the original)! There is some fierce complicated hand and arm choreography as well that dazzles the eyes! Jones best choreographed numbers of the evening easily were “Dance of the Robe” and “The Gods Love Nubia”, both performed by the Nubian cast members. The choreography in these numbers was executed with so much emotion, strength, and visual beauty. The staging and how they executed it was exquisite. It was powerful choreography, just powerful. Jones added new subtext to those two numbers that grips your heart. Directors around town….take notice of this choreographer’s extraordinary talent!

When you see someone’s work several times in succession, it can be good or bad. In the span of two weekends I have seen Wendy Rene’e Searcy’s sets at three different theaters now: The Addams Family (Plaza Theater Company), Into the Woods (Granbury Theater Company), and Aida (The Firehouse Theatre). That’s not counting her earlier work this season, Hunchback of Norte Dame (Plaza) and Gypsy (Firehouse). Seeing three shows back to back you notice a pattern. First time you go wow! Second time you like it. Third time it loses its luster. Searcy’s theme in her design palette is using beautiful artwork, photos, etc. then transferring them on fabric that is then applied to the walls, backdrops, set pieces, etc. It makes for exquisite, luxurious backdrops, but after a while It becomes, well, repetitive. For Aida the side and back walls, set pieces, etc. are all covered in hieroglyphic fabric. But it looks lifeless and yes photographed. What did work and look visually fantastic was the raised central floor piece that slid wide open to reveal sand. The center wall had a mini draw bridge that came down to become the runway. The upstage pieces were a nice touch as well, especially Pharaoh’s throne, however I did notice that the design pattern (I think it was of a corn stock with a circle) had not been completely finished and painted within the center panel.

Another design problem was within the museum, in particular the tomb and Amneris’s “case”. The daughter of Pharaoh is encased in a glass case, but there was no hint to the audience of this. It would greatly aid the audience to have her in a simple box frame to let the audience know she was part of the “collection”. An audience member whispered behind me at the top of her opening number, “I don’t get it.”

But then there is the tomb. This is a major symbolic piece that opens and closes the musical and brings it all back around. It doesn’t have to be some massive, twirling thing, but it should have an emotional impact. I totally understand it had to be small due to the space of the stage. But visually it was painted with lifeless, lackluster colors and you could clearly see the casters. It needed to be painted symbolically to connect and foreshadow from the start. The set would have benefited to have had a door designed within the center stage so that we could not see the two principals exit the tomb. It totally killed the moment of all that beautiful emotion between the doomed lovers crushed as we clearly saw them exit from the tomb.

Victor Newman Brockwell’s costumes had a terrific color palette, soft warm tones for the Nubian ensemble, wine and copper for the Egyptian Soldiers, and so on. I don’t know if it was an appropriate choice to put Amneris in killer pumps as she towered over her leading man. Also, we could clearly see her behind the rugs, thus ruining her “surprise” in Act II. It was an interesting design choice to go with masks and tiny tight outfits for “My Strongest Suit”. In both previous local productions both designers went all out for out of this world haute couture gowns and towering, outlandish hats. Having seen Brockwell’s previous work I know his incredible design magic, so it was surprising to go with this interesting style. I think it confused the audience as well when Amneris came out for the Runway finale, as she was supposed to come out with a costume slay the house down and make the audience applaud loudly for. It didn’t happen on the night I attended, it took some persuasion from Pray Tell (AKA the Billy Porter character) to get the audience to applaud. But It was a lovely black sheath gown though. His wedding gown and headdress confection for Amneris was sublime!

Cassondra Plybon-Harbin’s lighting design was soaked in rich colors that would go from purples and lavenders, to golds, to reds. The entire stage came alive with bountiful color. It became problematic at times when it came to some of the duets and trios. At times actors seem to be slightly off their mark where the light was so they were only half lit. What I particularly enjoyed in Plybon-Harbin’s work was that every musical number had its own design of color themes and movement throughout. They changed and moved within the choreography and music. I so wish more lighting designers did this. It adds volumes to the enjoyment of a musical. I especially admired her design for the lighting of “Elaborate lives” and the final scene.

There is no credit given in the playbill on who did the projections, but those were amazing, except for one major glaring error. Throughout the evening every scene had exquisite projections. But for the tomb scene with Aida and Radames, normally they are thrown into this tomb with a candle. As the ember begins to fade, Radames says those beautiful words to her. When the candle burns out we know they have perished. But here there is no candle, Plybon-Harbin uses a soft blue light, which is equally effective. In every production I’ve seen when the light goes out, a burst of stars appears. A theme that our lovers have sung earlier with their duet (“Written in the Stars”), and a lyric that even Amneris sings in her own song. It symbolizes their souls uniting in the heavens, and it puts a lump in in your throat. Because there were projections all evening long I was ready for this beautiful visual, and then no projection happened. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Director Derek Whitener has assembled a company of known talent as well as some new, exciting faces as well. Providing wonderful work includes Craig Boleman as the nefarious and treacherous Zoser whose solid vocals add flair to his two numbers; Zachary J. Willis as the adorable yet comical Mereb delivers equal amounts of comedy and when called upon, adds touching moments with Aida . Willis also possesses some stellar vocals. Greg Phillips has the best make-up design on stage as the Pharaoh. He doesn’t overplay the illness that plagues the king . He also shows great restraint in respecting his daughter’s wishes in Act II. Sydney Cornelius as Nehebka has a glorious soulful voice in “The Gods Love Nubia”.

Kudos must also go to the outstanding male dance ensemble that made up the Egyptian solders. These first-rate dancers really brought fantastic and energetic life the choreography in the numbers “Another Pyramid” and “Like Father, Like Son”. I was particularly impressed that they were able to go full out within the confined and limited space that they had to dance in. There was gymnastics, hip hop, and very intricate hand/arm movements. These six dancers ebbed and flowed seamlessly through Quintin Jone’s choreography. These top-notch dancers comprised of Marquette Burnett, Will Creek, Derril Lasseigne, Ryan C. Machen, Blake Seabourn, and Zach Sharp.

The two company numbers that became the show stopping numbers of the evening were both performed by the Nubian cast, which were “Dance of The Robe” and “The Gods Love Nubia”. The commitment to the lyrics, vocals, and choreography was riveting from the first note to the last measure of music. They dug deep into the lyrics, subtext and doused the stage with honest emotion. All the while executing the fluid yet precise choreography. In the latter number the entire company went into the audience and sang from either side of the audience full voice-acapella-and it was glorious gospel finesse. This sensational ensemble comprised of Gen Donnell, Sydney Cornelius, Marquette Burnett, Elizabeth Coleman, Kevin Davis Jr., Natassia Diggs, Alicia Marie Douglas, Rachel Herbert, Trace Hughes, and Mudibu Rita Nsubmbu.

Danelle Estes portrays Amneris, daughter of Pharaoh, who has been engaged to Radames for what seems like forever. She’s a blonde who loves fashion…well that’s it. But as the story moves on she becomes aware something has shifted within Radames and his affections toward her. Slowly she opens the pyramid door of her heart to see the truth. Estes delivers the comedy quite well and nails the jokes. Her pop soprano has a sexy, earthy cushion undertone that gives her voice a unique sensual pop quality, now add one hell of a belt, and you have a smashing voice. She is bathed in a dynamic stage presence and a pair of hypnotic eyes that would make any man crawl the sands of Egypt forever. I just wished she peeled deeper into the lyrics of her ballads, in particular “I Know The Truth”. You want Amneris to emotionally shred the subtext of the lyrics to expose the graphic reality of her exploding heart bleeding with pain, loss, and betrayal. All the while she is being dressed for her wedding before us! I think once she gets to the organic core of those lyrics she will fully realize that woman’s whirlwind thoughts of what she must do as she will soon be the ruler of Egypt, and she is no longer loved by her man. Nonetheless Ms. Estes delivers a noteworthy performance.

Rare Orion last season won THE COLUMN Award for Best Actor in A Musical in Memphis for his out of this world performance as Huey Calhoun. In Aida, he is Radames, the son to Zoser, who is groomed and pushed to marry Amneris. Strangely, this incredibly talented singer/actor had a bumpy, rough first Act. Orion looked uncomfortable and stiff on stage. His first number, “Fortune Favors The Brave” he cracked on the final high note, forcing him to lower the key and do some vocal riffs in a lower register to overcome that error. I don’t know if it was nerves or something else, but his first couple of book scenes he was not connecting. Another number, “Enchantment Passing Through” that is when the first sparks of Radames and Aida’s love should begin to burn, but both Orion and Imani Ani (Aida) had a couple of vocal hiccups in that duet. Both actors did not peel back the lyrics of the ballad. There’s a wealth of subtext in those lyrics for both characters regarding their future relationship, and even foreshadowing their love. It’s the ember that lights their chemistry. Once Orion got to the musical number “Not Me” he finally began to settle into his characterization and vocals, resulting in a wonderful vocal job within the song.

In Act II Orion does ground himself both emotionally and vocally into the role right out of the gate with the trio “A Step Too Far”. From there he connects much more with the subtext of the lyrics and his voice beautifully harmonizes with Imani Ani. His second Act work far outshined his first act. His voice got secured much more within his range, he grabbed control of his belt and vibrato, but more so, he was able to connect so much more with Ms. Ani, which added so much to the emotion of his characterization. His final scenes with Ani were his best work of the evening as an actor. Orion was much more in the moment. You felt that chemistry, love and attraction. And that final tomb and museum scene. Orion emotion and characterization was perfect. Just Perfect.

Imani Ani tackles the role of Aida, which has to be one of the most demanding and vocally challenging roles EVER for a female. Plus, it is a very complex role for any actress to grasp with a subtext that is constantly changing and raw. Heather Headley said in an interview once that even in her last week of doing the musical on Broadway she was STILL discovering her character that is Aida! In her first number when Imani Ani sustained her first note, she took a breath mid note and then continued the note. I became concerned immediately if this was a hint of things to come. She proved me wrong and did she ever! Ms. Ani’s characterization of Aida was of a regal, powerful, educated royal who doesn’t let a man control here, no matter the color of his skin. Her stage presence is blinding, dazzling, and commanding. Ms. Ani is a gorgeous and striking woman, so I can see why any prince would risk his throne for her! I sincerely feel that once she gets a few more performances under her royal belt she will discover and dig deeper into the lyrics to bring out more of the organic raw truth and honest emotion of Aida. She is so close already. She just needs to peel a couple of more layers. But, this transcendent talent has exposed so much already within her performance.

Ms. Ani has sealed her place to be nominated for Best Actress in A Musical for this year’s COLUMN Awards with her tornado like, powerhouse vocal attack of “Easy as Life” in Act II. No mere soprano should ever tackle this song unless you got the vocal chops to do it. Ms. Ani starts slowly in her lower register and begins to build her notes, voice, and belt like a vocal architect. It is surreal! When she gets to that impossible high soprano soul note, then she belts and holds it forever-and she does! She could have gone longer but the stage lights went out on her! Boo!!! Let her keep going! Nonetheless it was the best vocal number of the entire evening. I have never seen this insanely talented force before, but if I was casting director or a director, you better see this talent. She’s one of a kind. I was astounded by her voice, stage presence, and acting craft (especially in the second act). Imani Ani is a discovery and the very reason why you should see Aida. She is the star of the production, and deservedly so!

Ani and her leading man Rare Orion have two show stopping duets, one is a little damaged by the staging of singing straight out (“Written in the Stars”), but the other thankfully has them staged to have them singing to each other much more, the ravishing rendition of the “Elaborate Lives” reprise. In both duets, these two actors have sensual, loving chemistry that connects them both. In the “Elaborate Lives” reprise Orion kisses her hands, caresses her face, etc. as she sings. They look at each other’s eyes, you feel that bond and love. It’s fantastic. Their vocals and harmonies flow like honey. Both duets are remarkable numbers. But that final moment at the museum when Orion and Ani look at each other, and he smiles at her, and she looks at him with those luxurious brown eyes, for the first time all evening long, I finally felt my heart swell up.

I wanted this review to be clearly specific, detailed, with examples of what worked and didn’t work from my point of view. Why? As my intro stated, Elton John’s Aida is one of personal favorite musicals I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It’s hardly ever done in the DFW area, so when I saw that the Firehouse theatre was mounting a production of it, I was already excited about it because I know they do incredible work there. I am always impressed by director Derek Whitener at the helm. So, to leave after curtain call and feeling frustrated, I took a couple of days to seriously think of how I would critique this production as I replayed the musical in my head.

Maybe I’m being way too specific, but when you know a musical inside and out, you see the original Broadway production, then in the life’s strange paths you end up interviewing one of its original stars and become friends (fact). Then you see the national tour and end up seeing it over 14 times, interview and become friends with one its original leading stars as well (fact). Then yea, you get captivated and bonded with the show.

I almost called the Box office at the Firehouse theater to ask if I could see the show again (something I have never done at any theater in all my years of reviewing). Maybe it was an off night. We’ve all had them.

Theater is subjective, one sees one way, and another sees it differently.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA
The Firehouse Theatre, 972-620-3747
Playing through September 23, 2018