Talented Gibson enlivens Fiddlehead’s ‘Aida’

Janett "Becky" Bass, Ta'Nika Gibson and Terrell Foster-James in a scene from "Aida." Photo: Matt McKee, Fiddlehead Theatre Photo:

Janett “Becky” Bass, Ta’Nika Gibson and Terrell Foster-James in a scene from “Aida.” Photo: Matt McKee, Fiddlehead Theatre

DORCHESTER — When Disney Theatricals decided to recast “Aida” as a musical, it seemed a curious choice.
Verdi’s opera “Aida” is an iconic work, so popular that the Metropolitan Opera had performed it 1,100 times by 2007.
In this “Aida,” — now being performed by the Fiddlehead Theatre Company at the Strand Theatre — the classic opera has been turned into a pop/rock musical, and while the story
of the Nubian princess in ancient Egypt whose doomed love affair with an Egyptian soldier named Radames has been tweaked a bit, the essence remains.
“Aida” isn’t a perfect musical, even if the Tony voters decided to honor it with four Tonys in 2000, including one for the score by Elton John and Tim Rice, which fell well short of their efforts on another Disney show — “The Lion King.”
The book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang falls a bit short in bringing real definition to the characters. It can be a vocal showcase role for the right actress, as it was locally for actress Montego Glover, who portrayed the role in a North Shore Music Theatre production in 2004 and went on to star in “Memphis” on Broadway, earning a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination (and getting jobbed out of the Tony).

Ta'Nika Gibson, Christiana Rodi and Gene Dante in "Aida."

Ta’Nika Gibson, Christiana Rodi and Gene Dante in “Aida.” Matt McKee/Fiddlehead Theatre

Here Springfield native Ta’Nika Gibson, a student of classical voice and opera, gets the chance to command the stage as Aida and takes full advantage, with a soaring voice at home in up-tempo pieces as well as a piece like “Written in the Stars.” It could propel her to bigger and better things.
Gene Dante is Radames, the Egyptian warrior who is betrothed — nine years is what I’d call “an Irish engagement,“ since I had one almost as long — to but not in love with Amneris, the royal princess, with the union blessed by the Pharoah (Dallyn Vale Bayles), who isn‘t given much to do except be sick throughout the piece, with good reason
Dante has the street cred as an actual rock singer and the vocal chops to handle the singing demands of the role but acting-wise, there are times he seems to be rushing through the spoken dialogue to get to the next number in the score.
Christiana Rodi as Amneris has the most difficult and thankless role in the production
as the odd woman out in the tragic love triangle, but she maintains the stoicism and the necessary regal bearing and has some vocal highlights, including “Every Story is a Love Story.”
The best supporting performances are by Terrell Foster-James as Mereb, the street-smart Nubian slave who recognizes Aida for the princess she is, and Janet “Becky” Bass as Nehebka, another Nubian slave.
There are competent if not inspiring performances from Matthew Eamon Ryanas as Zoser — the father of Radames who schemes to put his son on the throne — and David J. Curtis as Amonasro, Aida’s father and king of Nubia.
Unfortunately, sound design has been a problem at times in the past for Fiddlehead in the spacious Strand, which has a deep stage. Early on in a recent show, some of the dialogue and lyrics struggled to be heard over the music from Balint Varga’s orchestra, but the problem seemed to cure itself later in the production.
Once you get past the in-and-out sound, the other production values are just fine. Award-winning costume designer Stacey Stephens knocks it out of the park with his creations, and the set by Anthony Phelps, the props/set dressing by Megan Kinneen and the lighting by Winston G. Limauge all work well together to create the proper atmosphere.
Not all of the production numbers fire off the launching pad, but “The Gods Love Nubia” is a gospel-flavored delight as the first-act closer.
Co-Directors James Tallach and Meg Fofonoff are seasoned pros and they get the requisite energy and enthusiasm from the entire cast, although the performances in the ensemble are a bit uneven.
The Fiddlehead Theatre and the Strand appear to be a good fit as the troupe continues to find its audience as the resident theater company in the theater, a comfortable, historic facility that has been rejuvenated and restored with the hope it can be also be an economic boon to the Uphams Corner neighborhood.
The Fiddlehead has scheduled two other musicals this season: “The Wiz,” an alternative take on “The Wizard of Oz,” and the musical that star that first coined the term “pop/rock musical,” “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Fiddlehead’s Fofonoff is betting that if you give the theater-goer good value in a clean, comfortable setting, they will come. Here’s hoping she’s right.
The Fiddlehead Theatre Company production of “Aida.” Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang. Directed by James Tallach and Meg Fofonoff Set, Anthony Phelps. Costumes, Stacey Stephens. Lights, Winston G. Limauge. Sound, Mockingbird Sound. Choreography, Kira Cowan. Music direction, Balint Varga. Through Oct. 26 at the Strand Theatre, Dorchester. http://www.fiddleheadtheatre.com

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