Every time I see “Aida,” the Elton John-Tim Rice musical about doomed lovers in ancient Egypt, I’m struck by what an odd duck the show is.
It was a major hit on Broadway, thanks to its creators’ slavish devotion to the conventions of pop musicals. Ostensibly based on the scenario that Giuseppe Verdi used for his 1871 opera, the John-Rice show offers us a love story no deeper than necessary to appeal to 14-year-olds.
The Starlight Theatre production, which it is presenting at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, is a hit-and-miss affair. Directed more or less competently by Mark Madama, the show is occasionally lifted by soaring vocal performances and a few outstanding supporting actors. Just as often, however, it’s a production that never finds a convincing aesthetic reason for being.
The story opens and closes in an antiquities museum as visitors casually take in the images of ancient Egypt and Nubia. It’s a way of ameliorating the tragic fate of its central characters by implying that there just might be something to those Egyptian notions about reincarnation.
An Egyptian captain, Radames (Paul Nolan), returns from a successful military foray into Nubia with captives in tow. One of them turns out to be the Nubian princess Aida (Zakiya Young), whom Radames presents as gift to his betrothed, Princess Amneris (Chelsea Packard).
It takes a while for Radames to figure out who Aida is, but not before he falls head over heels in love with her. Meanwhile, his father, Zoser (John Anthony), a high minister to Pharaoh (Kip Niven), is plotting to steal the throne for his son by slowly poisoning the ruler.
Amneris, naturally, wonders why her fiancé has so little time for her. Well, when a man finds the love of his life, you can’t expect him to be very interested in anyone else. The problem with this production is that Radames seems equally indifferent to Aida and Amneris.
Nolan has a nice voice, but where’s the passion? Two gorgeous women share the stage with him, but the lad performs like he’s wearing a straitjacket. He’s not given much help by the costumers, who in Act 2 have him wearing a sparkling red and gold tunic that looks as if it escaped from a circus.
Young, absent an acting partner, brings charisma and authority to the role of Aida, and her voice is often stunning. The best voice in the show, however, belongs to Packard, who crafts a delightful comic performance in Act 1 as the self-infatuated Amneris. The role gets all serious in the second act and isn’t nearly as much fun.
A fine supporting performance is registered by Justin Keyes as Mereb, a Nubian slave who has refined the art of theft and bribes. Mereb is an irresistibly appealing character, played with humor and charm by Keyes.
Anthony seems weirdly miscast as Zoser, the villain of the piece, exhibiting a laid-back approach to the performance in Act 1 that seems a bit too anachronistic, even for this show. In the second act, he comes roaring back, chewing up the scenery as if he downed a couple of cans of Red Bull during intermission.
The book is credited to three writers — Linda Wolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang — and dishes up too much plot and not enough emotional depth. John’s music shifts from recognizable genres — reggae, Motown, gospel — to melodies you couldn’t hum two minutes after hearing them.
But he makes sure he includes all the numbers a commercial hit needs. Act 1 closes with a stirring anthem, “The Gods Love Nubia.” Radames, Amneris and Aida perform a three-voice ballad with overlapping lyrics called “A Step Too Far.” Amneris gets a rousing number with her handmaidens, “My Strongest Suit.” All of these tunes are carefully positioned to give the show a superficial sense of emotional highs and lows.
The opening night performance Friday suffered from what sounded like an uneven sound mix. Some singers got drowned out by other singers, and often the lyrics were difficult to understand.
The rented sets, credited to designer Neil Patel, and a nice lighting design by Charlie Morrison give the production a lush, vivid look.
Kansas City audiences are famous for their standing ovations, and the theatergoers Friday wasted little time jumping to their feet at the curtain call. Deserved or not, the approval was happily received by a cast that looked gratified by the enthusiasm. And why not? They worked hard for it.