Theater Review: Bailiwick Chicago Rediscovers a Buried ‘AIDA’

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CHICAGO – When the initial production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” made its foray to the Broadway stage, following what was surely a tempestuous artistic adolescence, the public hurrah with which it was met signaled the birth of two eminent stage relations. First, that of John’s with both Broadway and West End investors, a collaboration that has far outstretched the boundaries set forth by “The Lion King”.

Second, and perhaps more ardently, was “Aida’s” indication of what was to be an unpredictable dance between the Walt Disney Corporation and the mouse’s previously untapped territory, the stage. Technically ambitious if artistically clumsy, “Aida”, with its droves of pubescent followers, always appeared content with its hollowed bellwether position. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.5/5.0
Play Rating: 4.5/5.0

However, as the newly formed Bailiwick Chicago company is too happy to assure, the flimsy glitz and gimmick once preferred by its corporate presenters needs only to be reverently muted for this piece to show the rich, emotional storytelling the mega-musical has long pushed to its innermost tombs.

The company of “AIDA”.” target=
The company of “AIDA”.
Photo credit: Jay Kennedy

Based on a storybook telling of Verdi’s opera of the same name, “Aida” presents a resounding if familiar tale of star-crossed love set in a fictionalized Egypt. Radames, a high-ranking soldier betrothed to the Pharaoh’s frivolous daughter, falls for one of his enslaved. Aida, a Nubian princess veiled as a commoner, finds herself similarly trapped between the demands of allegiance and amorous devotion. What results is a winsome, though mawkish tale of the resiliency of human emotion in times of wartime tumult.

To its credit, Bailiwick’s inaugural musical production (serving as the first of its kind since “Aida” launched its pre-Broadway tryout at the Cadillac Palace here in 1999) has placed both its creative and monetary stock in this trope, rather than the musical’s harmless saccharine upon which its predecessors have oft relied to fill seats.

For those of us who have long championed the hints of veracity this show can boast, director Scott Ferguson levies a wholly inspired, dramatically-driven incarnation at the American Theatre Company’s compact space. Brought to life by a vocally powered and largely African-American cast, this “Aida” at long last lays claim to its cultural roots. With riffed period pieces by designer Ricky Lurie and peregrine finery by designer Nina Henderson, the production manages to both celebrate its characters’ heritage while unabashedly displaying the truer stakes of pride. John’s soaring anthems, most notably “The Gods Love Nubia” and “Dance of the Robe” are given a well-needed indigenous makeover by the Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre, a choreographing company that infuses the piece with unprecedented identity.

Brandon Chandler and Rashada Dawan in “AIDA”.” target=
Brandon Chandler and Rashada Dawan in “AIDA”.
Photo credit: Jay Kennedy

The production is not a far cry from a uniform reimagining, considering the often-jejune regional facsimiles that quickly followed the musical’s Broadway bow. As is the case with most reconceptualized pieces, ensemble buy-in is often as essential as the creatives’ vision. Fortunately for Bailiwick, the youthful cast is not only loyal to Ferguson’s interpretation, but adroitly succeeds at surpassing “Aida’s” often fumbling book (penned by the otherwise lauded team of Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang).

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
StarMore theater reviews from our other critics.

Brandon Chandler brings a soulful flavoring to Radames, a role too frequently stifled by its romantic male lead echelon. Rashada Dawan delivers what is unequivocally a tour-de-force performance in the titular role, lending throaty vocals and hardened depth to the Nubian princess. Chandler and Dawan are certainly stand-outs, but the entire ensemble works nimbly in the reimagining. The ante is up. Way up.

But for those who still dote upon Sherie Rene Scott’s catwalk traipsing “My Strongest Suit” or the hammy demagogues, Bailiwick has not forgotten the resident schmaltz. But the company primarily works in the business of new discovery, digging up those dramatic tendons in a musical that has too long been buried.

Bailiwick Chicago’s “AIDA” runs through August, 1 2010 at the American Theatre Company space, 1909 W. Byron St. in Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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