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Aida
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Matt Lenz
Choreographed by Jon Rua
August 8, 2016

Cast of Aida Photo: The Muny

Cast of Aida
Photo: The Muny

It’s a musical based on the story from a well-known opera, with music by one of pop music’s most recognizable names. It’s set in ancient Egypt, but with a host of modern musical styles from pop to rock to gospel and more. The show is Aida, and it’s the last–and best–production of the Muny’s 98th season in Forest Park.

Aida is named after its central character, a Nubian princess (Michelle Williams) who has been captured along with others from her country as a result of a recent battle with Egypt. The Nubian captives are taken as slaves by the Egyptians, and Aida keeps her identity as a princess secret. The Egyptian captain, Radames (Zak Resnick), decides to present Aida as a “gift” to be a handmaiden for his betrothed, Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Taylor Louderman), although he and Aida are obviously attracted to one another. As their attraction grows, political intrigue also grows, as Radames’s unscrupulous father Zoser (Patrick Cassidy) schemes to get his son into power, against Radames’s own wishes. As the story continues, Aida and Radames are increasingly drawn to one another as Aida also develops something of a friendship with Amneris and also confides her secret to her countryman, Mereb (Wonza Johnson), another captured palace servant who wants to reveal her secret to his people. The warlike nature of society, the injustice of slavery and imperialism, roles and expectations of women, social pressures of marriage for political gain vs. love, and other issues are key elements in this story. It’s a love story ultimately, but not only about romantic love. It’s also about love for family, friends, country, and the desire for freedom to live and love as one chooses. The excellent songs by Elton John and Tim Rice portrays these themes with style and a variety of musical styles, ranging from pop to rock to gospel.

The cast here features several performers who have been involved in productions of Aida on Broadway, on tour, and in the last Muny production in 2006, including the excellent Michelle Williams, who previously played the title role on Broadway. She’s in excellent voice here and displays great stage presence and chemistry with Resnick’s conflicted Radames. Their duets are a highlight of the production. Taylor Louderman is also impressive as the initially superficial-seeming Amneris, whose ode to fashion “My Strongest Suit” is a musical and comedic tour de force. Louderman also does a great job portraying her character’s conflict and growth as a character. Also excellent is Johnson as Mereb, with a strong voice and a strong sense of conviction and loyalty to Aida and his people. There’s also a great performance by the Muny’s veteran Ken Page, reprising his 2006 role as Aida’s father, Nubian king Amonasro. Patrick Cassidy, who has previously played Radames on Broadway and on tour, does a fine job here in the somewhat cartoonish role of Zoser, although the vocals seem to be challenging for his range at times. The show also boasts a top notch ensemble, shining vocally and physically in stunning production numbers such as the Act 1 finale, “The Gods Love Nubia”. It’s a wonderful cast all around, telling the story with energy, emotion, and superb skill.

Technically, this production is also a stunner. The expansive, versatile set by Tim Mackabee evokes the Egyptian setting well, with pyramids, desert backdrops, and regal palace settings. Robin L. McGee’s costumes are superbly detailed, as well, suiting the characters well and evoking the time and place. There’s also fantastic lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer and video design by Matthew Young, transporting the audience to a somewhat stylized version of ancient Egypt.

Overall, this has been a good year for the Muny.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see all of the shows this year, missing Fiddler On the Roof because I was out of town that week. Still, the Muny is in excellent hands with Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson, and this production of Aida closes out the season in spectacular fashion. It’s a poignant, musically impressive, visually stunning, superbly acted production. I hadn’t seen this musical, or the opera on which it is based, before, and I’m glad this first-rate production was my introduction to this story.

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick Photo: The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Aida in Forest Park until August 14, 2016.

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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Matt Lenz
Chorographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
July 29, 2015

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s modern animated films. It’s a contemporary classic that’s been adapted for the stage and enjoyed a successful, long-running Broadway production. It’s a big, colorful show that’s well-suited for a large venue like the Muny. With a cast of well-known Muny veterans as well as some welcome new faces, this production is thoroughly entertaining and true to the magical, enchanting spirit of the film.

The plot, based on the age-old fairy tale, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Belle (Kate Rockwell) is a well-read young dreamer who is praised for her physical beauty, but criticized for her unconventional ways in her small French village. She’s pursued by the vain but good-looking Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann), who seems to only want to marry Belle so he can add another trophy to his collection. When Belle’s father, the eccentric inventor Maurice (Lenny Wolpe) gets lost in the woods and wanders into an enchanted castle, he’s imprisoned by the Beast (Nicholas Rodriguez), who is under an enchantress’s curse. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to save her father, the story really gets going, as their relationship is the key to breaking the spell that binds the Beast and his household servants, who have all been transformed into objects–like the candlestick Lumiere (Rob McClure), the clock Cogsworth (Steve Rosen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Marva Hicks) and her son Chip (Spencer Jones) the teacup. There’s also feather duster Babette (Deidre Goodwin) and wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche (Heather Jane Rolff).  A few changes have been made from the film version, mostly to make the story work better on stage, and a few new songs have been added, including the excellent ballads “Home” for Belle and “If I Can’t Love Her” for the Beast. The film’s classic songs including “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and the classic title song are all there, as well.

This is a big, vibrant production designed to fit the Muny’s massive performance space. Although the costumes, designed by Robin L. McGee, seem a bit overly cartoonish at times, the set is spectacular. Designed by Robert Mark Morgan, it’s a big, versatile set focused for much of the production on the castle, with a suggestion of the grand stone facade including arches, a staircase and prominent fireplace. The Muny’s turntable is put to excellent use as well, making for smooth scene changes and maintaining the show’s grand atmosphere. There’s also excellent video design by Matthew Young, and some well-placed special effects including real fireworks in a key scene. Again, as has been happening in every show so far this season, there are a few sound mishaps, with mics cutting out and lines being missed as a result. Still, the show is a scenic wonder, contributing to the overall fairy tale theme with style.

The performances are strong all-around, with the biggest standout being Rockwell as a thoroughly convincing Belle. She’s got just the right amount of earnestness, determination and likability, as well as a big, powerhouse voice that’s well showcased on songs like “Home” and “A Change In Me.” She’s paired well with Rodriguez as a particularly sensitive Beast, and their scenes of getting to know one another are real highlights. The “Beauty and the Beast” number is beautifully done, with Rockwell and Rodriguez bringing the romantic energy and Hicks in fine voice as Mrs. Potts.  There’s great comic support from the always excellent McClure as the charming Lumiere, and Rosen as the fastidious Cogsworth. Hackmann is a suitably swaggering and clear-voiced Gaston, and Michael Hartung is funny as his bumbling sidekick Lafou. There’s also an excellent, extra-large ensemble bringing verve and vigor to the production numbers like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Belle”.

There are a few somewhat jarring changes from the film that I’m not sure play particularly well, especially toward the end when Gaston confronts the Beast, although the overall conclusion is still effective. The overall charm of this show comes across well in that big, bold Muny style. It’s an entertaining iteration of a classic, and it’s sure to bring joy and enchantment to theatregoers of all ages.

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen Photo: The Muny

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 7th, 2015.

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