Atlanta Lyric Theatre is presenting a gorgeous production of the musical play “Aida,” with music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang; the show is directed by Taylor Buice and will run through Sept. 2. I’m pretty good at spotting hits, and I wouldn’t delay in getting tickets.
Twenty years ago next month this show had its world premiere at Alliance Theatre; it was called “Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida”; it had some pretty major technical problems, but it had two undeniable assets from the first: a haunting, great score and a young woman named Heather Headley, who played the title role. I saw this premiere and was quite enchanted even then.
After some major tweaking, cast changes, and another tryout in Chicago, the show, called simply “Aida,” opened on Broadway in March, 2000. It still had Ms. Headley and the lovely music, and it sailed to four Tony Awards (including Best Original Score and Best Leading Actress) and proceeded to run almost 2,000 performances. I saw it — twice.
By the way, some people will know that “Aida” is based on Verdi’s opera of the same name; it premiered in Cairo in 1871 and is still a staple in the operatic repertoire.
Do you like star-crossed romance and exotic locales? This is your show. An enslaved Nubian princess, Aida (India Tyree), finds her heart entangled with Radames (Haden Rider), an Egyptian soldier, who returns her love. But he is betrothed to the Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris (Lauren Hill). As Aida’s and Radames’ forbidden love grows, Aida is forced to weigh her heart against the responsibility she faces as the leader of her people.
Meanwhile, Radames has saved Aida from the copper mines (and certain death) and got her appointed as a handmaiden to Amneris, to whom he’s been engaged for several years. They are childhood friends. Amneris is first revealed as a rather light-headed fashionista (“My Strongest Suit”) who can’t understand her fiancé’s hesitance. But Amneris changes; you’ll have to see how.
The Pharoah (Matthew Morris) has decreed that his daughter must finally marry Radames—in seven days. The Pharoah’s own time is short because he’s being slowly poisoned by Zoser (Christopher Kent), the Chief Minister and Radames’ father. Radames knows nothing of his father’s treachery.
Aida’s father, Amonasro (Brian Jordan, Jr.), strictly forbids any further dalliance by Aida with Radames. But that is “Easy as Life,” as she sings in an ironic, thrilling song.
Speaking of thrilling music, “Aida” has a lot of it, and sung by some incredible singers. The orchestra is prerecorded perfectly; music direction by Christian Magby; the ensemble sound is excellent.
I cannot pay Ms. Tyree (Aida) a higher compliment than to say she is a worthy successor to Heather Headley; she is stunning.
Then there is Haden Rider (Radames). With three shows in the past year—“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and now “Aida,” this young man has become the gold standard for fine singing on the Atlanta musical stage. He is so gifted it is shocking. And like Ms. Tyree, he is an actor who sings. Life isn’t fair.
When he and Ms. Tyree launch into the soaring duet “Elaborate Lives,” you may get goose bumps. I teared up; I’m older. One gets sentimental.
I want to mention Ms. Hill’s Amneris again; she offers some lovely, moving moments with “Every Story is a Love Story” and especially “I Know the Truth” near the end. As I mentioned, her character changes. She’ll surprise you.
This show may not be one of the ten greatest musicals ever, but it has a hypnotic ambience unlike any musical play I’ve ever seen. Its plot is simple, moving, and inevitable—the way the Greeks said true tragedy must be.
And it has music that soars; the opening night audience was quite besides themselves. It’s no accident that composer Elton John wrote another musical you may have heard of: “The Lion King.”
Take yourself back 3,000 years or so and experience “Aida.” You won’t be sorry.
For tickets and information, visit atlantalyrictheatre.com .