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Pyramid Scheme

In a numbingly Disneyfied adaptation by Elton John and Tim Rice, the once celestial "Aida" is decked out in gaudy finery and cheap platitudes.

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Desert storm: Adam Pascal and Heather Headley in Aida.  

Shakespeare could imagine nothing worse than the rude mechanicals' offering for Duke Theseus' wedding, Pyramus and Thisby, now far surpassed by Pyramids and Disney, or, as they presume to call it, Aida. In its earlier incarnation as Elaborate Lives (Atlanta, 1998), it featured a functional pyramid, which had to be scrapped for malfunctioning. I myself would have kept the pyramid, however dysfunctional, and scrapped the show.

The new version, clearly a project by committee, has a book by the schlockmistress Linda Woolverton, the precious playwright David Henry Hwang, and the deep social thinker Robert Falls, who also directed. It avers to have been "suggested by the opera," which, if consulted, could only have suggested, "Get lost!" What Rent did to La Bohème, Aida the musical does to Aida the opera in spades. Not least ludicrous is the happy ending, brazenly purloined from One Touch of Venus, whose dorky hero, having lost the goddess herself, hooks up with her human double at a museum. Here, in a museum prologue and epilogue, the present-day reincarnations of Radames and Aida, after stalking each other around the Egyptian collection, lock into a closing clinch.

As heralded by stinkers like Saturday Night Fever and The Civil War, the undignifiedly Disneyfied Aida is that new kind of musical in which nothing much works. But if it can reach the mightiest of target audiences, the ear-brain-and-taste-impaired, it can, borne aloft by Disney's deep pockets, run at least as forever as Cats.

Elton John has concocted a score wherein everything sounds the same -- i.e., tuneless, without even enough theatrical savvy to make the particular tunelessness appropriate to the character who mouths it. For the first-act finale, though, he reached for something grander, "The Gods Love Nubia," a sort of hymn or anthem for Aida and her fellow Nubian slaves in an Egyptian internment camp, on whose evidence the gods don't give an old-fashioned rap for Nubia. The arrangers and orchestrators -- Paul Bogaev (who also conducts), Steve Margoshes, and Guy Babylon (slightly east of Suez) -- have supplied Sir Elton's music with a disco-from-hell beat that manages to make it, to coin a phrase, worse than it sounds. Tim Rice's lyrics, some of which I tried to take down but my hand balked, wallow, perfectly matched, in the same trough as the tunes.

Aida is Heather Headley, ex-lioness from The Lion King a tall, angular young woman whose acting consists of feral scowls, whose speaking voice is an ominous growl, and whose singing is a confrontational blend of bellowing and caterwauling. It appears that you can take the girl out of The Lion King but not the lioness out of the girl. As Amneris, her rival in love, Sherie René Scott chooses or is directed to impersonate -- as Ben Brantley aptly noted -- Tori Spelling on Beverly Hills 90210.

The Radames, Adam Pascal (formerly of Rent), boasts of not having had a single singing or acting lesson, which proves incontestable, and that he has ignored the Puccini and Verdi originals so as not to "taint his ideas" -- an unnecessary precaution, as he seems free from anything resembling thought. The supporting players, who might have made modest contributions, abstained -- perhaps from an excess of modesty.

Robert Falls's direction being no help, and Wayne Cilento's MTV-ish choreography being one part Egyptian fresco and nine parts fiasco, it's all up to the production values. Natasha Katz does some impressive and novel things with her lighting, but Bob Crowley's costumes and sets, with two exceptions, are a disaster. Palm trees are fetchingly mirrored in the Nile, and a vertical swimming pool amusingly displays fliers as swimmers. For the rest, the gifted Crowley now seems to think that a production should adapt to him rather than vice versa. His décor would be the pride of one of our classier automobile showrooms; his costumes are Las Vegas Ruritanian, except for a fashion show put on for Amneris by her handmaidens as runway models, which is straight out of Pharaoh Ziegfeld's Nilotic wet dreams.

It is rumored that the true inspiration for Aida was Disney's search for an excuse to market a black doll. If it does not make Hadleyan sounds to frighten little children, it should be a huge success.


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