‘AIDA’ – Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice.
Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang. Co-Directors: Meg
Fofonoff and James Tallach; Music Director: Balint Varga; Chorographer: Kira
Cowan; Scenic Designer: Anthony R. Phelps; Costume Designer: Stacey Stephens.
Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at The Strand Theatre, 543 Columbia
Road, Dorchester, through October 26.

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Powered by a trio of outstanding vocal
performances, the Fiddlehead Theatre Company has launched its 20th season with
a roar, staging the Elton John/Tim Rice musical ‘Aida’ – a production that may
be remembered as the musical theater debut of its lead, the multi-talented
Ta’Nika Gibson. Ms. Gibson, a classically trained singer, gives a breakthrough
performance in this production which grew ever more confident as the opening
night show unfolded.

Gibson portrays the title character, Aida, a
fiery Nubian princess who has been captured by the Egyptian army and enslaved
along with other women from her country. She does not submit quietly to her
fate and her defiant nature captures the fancy of Radames (Gene Dante), captain
of the Egyptian army. He spares her and the other women from perishing in the
copper mines by assigning them light duty in the palace, but makes a gift of
Aida to his betrothed, Princess Amneris (Christiani Rodi), daughter of the
Pharaoh. Radames will assume the throne when the Pharaoh dies (which he may do
a little sooner than planned with the help of his father) if he marries the
princess, but Amneris is so superficial (as she demonstrates in the campy girl
group song “My Strongest Suit”, a personal ode to her highly developed sense of fashion) that you suspect he will soon fall
for the more substantial beauty, Aida. Which of course, he does.

Rodi gives a performance that is initially
reminiscent of Madeline Kahn in “Young Frankenstein” with her wildly
exaggerated (but very funny) narcissistic behavior, before heartbreak
transforms her into a sympathetic three dimensional character. Like Gibson,
Rodi is also a gifted vocalist, which she demonstrates in her compelling solo
numbers, particularly “I Know the Truth”, when she discovers that
Radames loves Aida. Dante is also a powerful singer, and you can almost hear
Elton John’s voice coming through on some of the numbers. The score of this
show is solid if not spectacular, but there are some standout numbers,
especially “The Gods Love Nubia” sung by Aida and the ensemble of
Nubian slaves to close out the first act. There are some touching ballads as
well, including “Elaborate Lives” (Aida and Radames), “How I
Know You” (Aida and Mereb, Radames head servant), and the beautiful
“Not Me” (Aida, Radames, Amneris and Mereb).

Based on Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian-language opera
of the same name, this a fairly compelling story with a number of intriguing
elements, including the political ramifications of this doomed love affair.
Like Romeo and Juliet, you know it’s probably not going to end well, but love
apparently lives eternally. “Aida” is also a great spectacle, as any
production set in ancient Egypt (think ‘Cleopatra’) tends to be. There are
elaborate dance numbers, some beautiful costuming, and the scenic design really
evokes an old MGM soundstage version of the desert kingdom. The ensemble
singing is really terrific, and my only problem with the production came when
the orchestra volume occasionally drowned out the lyrics of the songs, (which
is a shame, as Tim Rice is a very clever lyricist, as fans of “Jesus
Christ Superstar” can attest).

This is a production well
worth experiencing, especially for the performance of Gibson, of whom I expect and
hope to see more of on Boston’s stages. For more info, go to: