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Theater Review: "Aida"

Daebreon Poiema as Aida.
Photo credit:
Moonlight Amphitheatre

The last time I reviewed Elton John’s “Aida,” I closed with this line: “I’ll take my Verdi straight, please.”

That said, Moonlight Stage Productions offers (through July 1) a fine production of John’s pop version of the Aida story, which uses Leontyne Price’s children’s book as its text source.

In place of operatic arias, John and lyricist Tim Rice offer an eclectic mix of songs with reggae, Motown, gospel and pop inflections, even including influences of African music.

“Aida” is a tragic story of forbidden love between Egyptian soldier Radames and the newly captured Nubian princess (now Egyptian slave) Aida, complicated by Radames’ impending arranged marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris.

This “Aida” isn’t a great musical (though it did run four years on Broadway), but Moonlight does it proud with a passel of fine singing actors backed up by Lyndon Pugeda’s excellent 14-member orchestra, and a large ensemble corps that contributes colorful movement and choreography by John Vaughan (who also directs the show).

Daebreon Poiema (remembered fondly from last year’s “Sister Act”) does it again here, with an Aida who looks and acts a princess, though an amusingly spunky one. 

Aida is more than just another slave; she has been brought to Egypt with her aging father Amonasro (Morie Williams), the Nubian king, and a group of Nubians.

She feels the weight of her country on her shoulders. 

Poiema sings like an angel, though like all the principals, she too often has to belt to fit John’s pop style. Still, it’s a lovely, touching performance.

It’s clear why hunky Richard Bermudez’s Radames (clearly a gym rat in his spare time) is of interest to more than one woman. He, like Aida, is torn between duty and love, and is both absolutely convincing and wonderful to listen to as he and Aida spiral to their inevitable bad ends.

Bill Ledesma’s rich baritone voice lends authority to his role as Radames’ father Zoser. 

Terrance Spencer brings charm and a fine singing voice to the role of Mereb, a Nubian servant to Radames.

Bets Malone has fun with her role as shallow clotheshorse princess Amneris, used to getting everything from her daddy the Pharaoh and expecting the same from Radames.

Her line “Let’s go play in my closet” tells you all you need to know.

Malone has a very strong voice (occasionally a bit too strident for my taste) and bookends the show with the song “Every Story Is a Love Story.”

The rented sets are properly imposing and the costumes (especially for you-know-who and her ladies) a treat to see.

John Vaughan’s choreography is excellent, with ethnic flavors for different groups. Here’s another plus: most of the cast is of color.

“Aida” is a great story. Given a choice, I’ll still take Verdi, but Elton John and Tim Rice offer a very watchable alternative.

The details

“Aida” plays through July 1, 2017 at Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive in Vista.

Wednesday through Sunday at 8 pm. 

Tickets: (760) 724-2110 or www.moonlightstage.com