Every story, new or ancient, bagatelle or work of art…all are tales of human failing…all are tales of love at heart. The Gods love Constellation Theatre Company for spinning their storyteller’s thread into a musical theatre masterpiece production of Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida. A staggeringly powerful and stunningly beautiful production Directed by Michael J. Bobbitt with Musical Direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy and Choreography by Tony Thomas II, Constellation’s Aida possesses the grandeur and potency of Broadway’s timeless love story and the daring familiarity of telling such a tremendous story in such an intimate space. Evocative, riveting, and filled with a colorful vibrancy that pulsates through each moment of the show, Aida is a refreshing breath of reality in its own tragically beautiful way amid these tempestuous times in the nation’s capital.
Director Michael J. Bobbitt and the creative team have transformed the versatile play space inside Source Theatre to suit the needs of Constellation’s production. Scenic and Lighting Designer A.J. Guban has fabricated the illusion of a pyramid in place on the set. With a floor worthy of a pharaoh, the intricate shimmer of silver and gold leaf reflect up in the shape of innumerable small pyramids, accented by twinkling azure the shade of the Nile and strong black outline, not dissimilar to the style and thickness used in the various makeup plots on different Egyptian characters in the show. The ceiling is covered in a subtler manner with hallow pyramid outlines, encapsulating the space in this symbolic wrap of Egypt’s greatest geometric icon. The stage rakes upward on an angle, tilting into the depths of the space coming together on an angle to create the edge of the pyramid itself.
Guban’s lighting design, albeit with technicolor spirit, is a vivacious character all its own, acting as a critical player in various musical numbers and intense scenes throughout the production. It is difficult to find the right words to fully illustrate all of the clever timing and emotional matching that exists within Guban’s lighting plots; suffice it to say that each subdued shift of violet night and each glowing pulsation of colorful illumination that scatters through up-tempo numbers are perfectly balanced against the progressive moods and emotions of the performance.
If Guban’s set is a marvel, Kenann M. Quander’s costumes are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The shimmer, sparkle, and glistening gem work alone is enough to dazzle one’s eyes to the point of blindness. Quander finds balance in the simplicity of the tired togs of the Nubians and the extravagance in the wardrobe of those in power, particularly in every unfathomable fashion affair featured on Amneris. You’d need a separate catalog to aptly describe and praise each of Quander’s extraordinary garments and all of their shimmering detail, which elevate the character of Amneris’ status to something almost godly. The reflective gold headdress featured on Pharaoh and his guard are breathtaking as well.
Infused with Egyptian styling and replicating moves featured on the hieroglyphs (which can be seen hidden in various crevices and crannies of A.J. Guban’s set if you look closely), choreographer Tony Thomas II and his assistant Patricia “Pep” Targete concoct energetic dance routines that are smoothly streamlined into the production. Despite the show’s power-ballad rocker nature, the music and narrative do not readily lend themselves to flashy dance numbers. The intimacy and overall enclosed nature of the stage add an additional challenge to staging natural and effective dance routines for this production, but this is a challenge to which Thomas and Targete rise with radiant resplendence. Both “Another Pyramid” and “Like Father Like Son” feature circle-rounds of the ministers moving and executing these highly stylized gestures.
Walter “Bobby” McCoy, who serves as the show’s Musical Director (and conducts the pit nearly unseen from inside a concealed wall of the pyramid, along with Marika Countouris on second keyboard, Mila Weiss on reeds, Jaime Ibacache on guitar, Jason Wilson on bass, and Manny Arciniega on drums and percussion), amasses a superb quality of sound from both his pit and his ensemble. With impeccable balance in the sound arising from the pit so as to not overplay the performers in the cozy staging space, McCoy deftly manipulates his way through the extraordinary music of Elton John as if his fingers were born conducting it.
The aforementioned ensemble (Ian Anthony Coleman, Lawrence Hails, Ashley Johnson-Moore, Amber Lenell Jones, Wendell Jordan, Kaylen Morgan, Ashley K. Nicholas, Greg Watkins, Topher Williams, Tara Lynn Yates-Reeves) under the visionary guidance of Director Michael J. Bobbitt creates a striking canvas of support for both principal players and the telling of the story. Bobbitt approaches the piece from a point of hard truth; there is no saccharine sugar coating of the show’s opening or its end. The decision Bobbitt makes for the staging of the end is quite profound, but naught else can be said without ruining the beauty of the moment. Voices emblazoned with the spirit of the story, the plight of the Nubian people, and the heart and soul of undying hope burn with unwavering consistency and strength all throughout the performance. Standout performances among this ensemble include Ashley Johnson-Moore as Nehebka, whose powerhouse belt resonates with lasting effect all through “The Dance of the Robe.”
Every story, new or ancient, has a protagonist and an antagonist as well. For Aida the primary antagonist, outside of the circumstances of the plot itself, takes the form of the haughty and corrupt Zoser (Greg Watkins.) With palpable malevolence thinly veiled as paternal love and desperation for his offspring’s success, Watkins manifests a vile force of villainy inside of Zoser. There is an oily polish to his presentation, like the gleaming scales of a tomb asp just before it strikes; slathered in sleaze and driven by a carnal need for power and domination, Watkins slips through “Another Pyramid” and “Like Father Like Son” like a demon God of the underworld, despicable and pernicious.
Kindly, eager, innocent, almost a fully opposed foil to the despicable Zoser excepting for the fact that their characters never truly interact, Mereb (Da’Von Moody) is a balm of comfort in such turbulent waters that break upon the shore of the Nile. Moody, whose has hints of comedy tucked delicately about his person, lightens the atmosphere with a careful and well-timed quip here and there, but his character’s true purpose is that of a lighthouse, beaming like the everlasting flame of hope in a perilous and lost situation. Moody’s voice is sublime, especially when paired up against that of Aida’s; his emotions soar clearly across his face and through his notes during “How I Know You” and his section of the quartet, “Not Me” is quite vocally mesmerizing.
In her own dazzling right, the story of human failing and love at heart is as much Amneris’ (Chani Wereley) story as it is Radames and Aida’s. With astonishing vocal clarity, even when she lands the screaming blast-belts at the top of her range in some of these more expressive moments of her singing, Wereley owns each moment of her character’s existence. While they say ‘clothes make the man’ in this case, Wereley struts with pride through every outrageous and grandiose costume change given to her character, showcasing each radiant sparkle, each glistening gleam of silver, gold, and white like a proper princess. There is a surprising emotional depth to Amneris that Wereley brings directly to the surface of the character, doling it out in little spoonfuls at first, during numbers like “A Step Too Far.” When Wereley embraces the full impact of her character’s emotional transition, during “I Know the Truth”, it is a fully harrowing experience. Of course, enough praise cannot be given for the fluff-filled number, “My Strongest Suit” where the glamourous superficial character that Wereley initially presents is on full preening display like a regal peacock.
Malleable like the mud of the Nile banks, Jobari Parker-Namdar creates a curiously dynamic Radames. There is never one stalwart phase for this character’s existence and this is a puzzling but rewarding choice. Loaded with emotional depth that could sink all of the Egyptian war ships clean off the Nile, Parker-Namdar is inexplicably complex, defying the more rigid and traditional approach to the character set down by the role’s main originator Adam Pascal. Rather than phases of softening and total, abrupt transformation, Parker-Namdar keeps the character floating in a world of perpetual ambiguity; he knows his duty but he also knows his mind and his heart. Being continuously pulled in three separate directions makes for a highly intriguing portrayal. With a stellar vocal sound, every song he delivers lands with perfection on the ear, even more so when in duet with the incomparable Aida.
Powerhouse, tour du force, triple-threat Aida; Shayla S. Simmons in the titular role is a command delivered by the gods themselves to Constellation Theatre Company. Her raw energy, her fiery spirit, her outstanding vocal talent, all of these elements fuel not only Simmons’ performance as Aida but spread contagiously and to great effect throughout the cast, driving the entirety of the production forward with great success. The playful nature with which she and Parker-Namdar approach “Enchantment Passing Through” is lively and spirited, possessed of a freedom which they both desperately seek. Her duets of love shared with him, “Elaborate Lives” and “Written in the Stars” are soul-searing. Simmons brings a tremendous amount of vocal fortitude and physical prowess to the role; unafraid to approach it from a place of raw truth and visceral passion.
Don’t miss this exquisite opportunity to experience Aida in all its raw beauty; this show is remarkable and one of the finest things to be seen on DC-area stages this season.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission