Ankh Around the Clock

Aida the grand opera by Giuseppe Verdi and Aida the Elton John/Tim Rice rock musical now running at the Uptown Players have one thing in common. One thing, that is, besides the title, the setting (Egypt at the time of the pharaohs) and the love triangle involving handsome navy captain Radames, the pharaoh's snotty daughter Amneris and her sexy slave girl, Nubian princess Aida. What both shows share is the need for three lead performers who can sing real loud. And there the similarities between great opera and pop schlock musical end.

This Aida is another of Disney's pegs in the sarcophagus of American theater. It's so weak in song and story that it elevates the worth of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King by comparison. At least those shows had people in furry heads dancing around with human candelabra and herds of wildebeests trading one-liners with a gay prairie dog or whatever it was Nathan Lane played in the movie. Aida, a fairly humorless two and a half hours, features a band of swishy pirates in leather gear and the live entombment of the lovers. So much for a fun night out.

Calling Aida a musical is like classifying Dancing With the Stars as classical ballet. It's musical as marketing tool, a homogenized assemblage of generic pop-rock melodies, stupefying lyrics, cardboard characters, weird transitions and plot holes as wide as the Suez Canal. One minute Amneris (played at Uptown by Patty Breckenridge, who gets more out of the role than the role deserves) hates little Aida (Kia Dawn Fulton) and is threatening to have her thrown in a copper mine, and the next she's her best friend and confidante, fighting to save her from execution so she can live happily ever after with Radames (Gary Floyd).

There are more cogent scripts on Saturday morning cartoons, which is what this should have been. Aida the character is nothing more than a Nubian Little Mermaid now, a Middle Eastern Mulan. It's as if the writers of the show--Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang--wanted to toss in a little something for every demographic, good writing and good sense be damned. There's some romance for the ladies, some T&A (those slave girls) for the straight gents (and pirates for the others), a lot of vaudevillian silliness to make the kiddies twitter and then a huge, damp layer of preachy messages about fate and timeless love and other stuff "written in the stars." Gag me.

The music by Sir Elton and lyrics by Sir Tim evidently were not written in the stars but in Karo syrup on a stack of waffles, so gooey are the tunes and words. Here's Aida singing about Radames in the ballad "Easy as Life":

All I have to do is to pretend I never knew him

On those very rare occasions when he steals into my heart

Better to have lost him when the ties were barely binding

Better the contempt of the familiar cannot start.

The "contempt of the familiar"? What in the name of Isis does that mean?

And what would Aida be without a song called "Another Pyramid"? It's a doozy of a downer sung by Zoser (Regis Allison), the show's Egyptian lounge lizard, who is trying to poison the pharaoh and take his throne. Sample lyrics:

Sad to say our mighty ruler

Is not really in the pink

Hopes could not be minuscular

That he'll come back from the brink

Not to beat around the bush

He looks like heading for his box

At the risk of seeming pushy

We must plan for future shocks.

"Minuscular"? Same song also rhymes "pyramid" with "invalid." Come on, Sir Tim, you wrote much better words for Lion King. Get up off your asp and try harder.

Uptown Players, a company with a loyal following for its gay-themed shows, has an up and down history with putting on musicals. They did fine with the gentle and intimate Ahrens and Flaherty show A Man of No Importance, then tripped big-time when they tried The Who's Tommy. With Aida, once again they're overreaching in terms of talent and artistry. The cast is thin on star power and lacks strong voices. The set designed by Wade Giampa looks like a loaner from a children's production of Cleopatra. The staging by director Doug Miller stands the actors in limp lines to say even limper ones.

Vicki Squires' choreography leans heavily toward cheerleading routines done by those 'do-rag-wearing pirate boys. The young, slick-chested male dancers execute some mighty fine split-jumps and Herkies, like the varsity squad from King Tut High.

Costumes by Michael Robinson, Bill Bullard and Suzi Shankle are as big a mosh of mish as the score of Aida. Characters come out in harem pants, sparkly Cher-like evening gowns, wigs with 1950s bouffants, off-the-rack pastel peasant skirts and Indian blouses, feathered Mardi Gras headdresses, leatherette robes and, in one scene in Amneris' boudoir involving her and her slave gals, terrycloth towels and nothing else.

Only the lighting design by Julie Simmons adds any visual splash. In a space too small for major set changes, the bold washes of red, blue and green lights bathe the stage in the colors of sunsets, deserts and dank tombs.

The cast is one of Uptown's weakest ever (all the best singers were busy in WaterTower's Urinetown). In the title role, which she's played before at the Scott Theatre in Austin, Kia Dawn Fulton makes Aida simply too plucky and just a little bit of a pill. Protesting her enslavement, Fulton's princess juts her little chin in the air and plants her sandals firmly beneath her, but her posture lacks real regal grace. Fulton also sounds as if she's singing an octave out of her range. She visibly strains for the high notes on her big songs.

As a cabaret singer and crooner of folk-pop at a piano, handsome Gary Floyd is the best in town. But as Radames, who's supposed to be a commanding naval hero, he's too callow and unsure to be believable. He looks good shirtless in the billowy gauze pants, and that goes a long way toward selling tickets at Uptown (which already boasts a string of sold-out performances on the books for Aida), but there's something soft and unthreatening about Floyd that reads "best friend of hero" instead of hero himself. He also wasn't in the best voice on opening night, cracking badly in his upper register. And the chemistry between him and Fulton is tepid at best. Snaps to director Miller, however, for opening one scene with Floyd polishing his sword. We get it.

Cedric Neal, who has a fine singing voice, has a few good moments as Radames' second, Mereb, but the part is poorly written. His duet with Aida, "How I Know You," was the best vocal performance by anyone on critics' night.

Were it not for Patty Breckenridge, a live ringer for the dead movie star Anne Baxter (title diva in All About Eve), Aida would be as dull as the dust on Imhotep's mummy. But out comes Breckenridge as Amneris in a gold lamé toga, belting "My Strongest Suit"--"I am what I wear," she says with a bump and a grind. She succeeds at waking up the zombified first act with some hilarious eye rolling, hip wriggling and punchline punching. But just when we get used to Amneris being a sort of Bouncing Bimbo of the Nile, the script makes her switch gears and get all serious. At the end, Amneris has some really awful scenes with her father, the dying Pharaoh, played by Steve Iwanski made up to resemble Abe Vigoda with an upside-down umbrella stand on his head.

This being Disney and not Rodgers and Hammerstein or Verdi, Aida ends on a happy note. But the ending makes about as much sense as those Mardi Gras outfits. Aida and Radames, buried alive thousands of years ago, meet again as present-day museum patrons wandering among the very artifacts they might once have owned in ancient Egypt. Wearing matching khakis, they join hands, look longingly into each other's reincarnated souls and wander off to the mall to buy linens with high thread counts.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner