It's mildly miraculous that playwright David Henry Hwang, lyricist Tim Rice and music man Elton John could conspire together and still end up doing Disney by the numbers, offering a fine, sanitized, child-safe Broadway story with all the requisite Disney signatures and none of the bite that each of these artists is known for.
Aida hearkens back to an older, traditional form of the musical, most notably in its innocence and its family orientation. It is a forbidden love story, and there are serious ideas burning at its core, but it never loses its sense of play.
The major characters are each haunted by their high birth. Radames is an Egyptian captain, a soldier by trade and an explorer at heart. The play opens as he returns from Nubia with a boatload of slaves. His mercy is highlighted several times in his first moments on stage, establishing his viability as a romantic lead worthy of pursuing the heroine, Aida. She is one of the slaves he has brought home, and her strength of character immediately pushes him toward change.
Aida puts her courage and her ethical instincts to use the first moment she takes the stage. She is a Nubian princess, hiding her royalty in part to survive as a prisoner, but mainly because she sincerely wishes to be of her people, not above them. Her challenge throughout the play is to accept the mantle of responsibility that is expected of her and to ultimately learn the difficulty of rising above simple martyrdom and sacrificing her own noble needs for the good of her country.
The third principal character is Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh, and the fiance of nine years to Radames. She is superficial in a contemporary, Valley Girl kind of way, but she is extremely self-aware and she embraces her reputation as "first in beauty, wisdom and accessories," declaring in an uplifting ode to underwear that "I am what I wear ... I would rather wear a barrel than conservative apparel." She develops a meaningful friendship with Aida, her new handmaiden, and she is challenged to maturity when she discovers the attraction between her fianc and her friend.
It's no surprise that the visual image is supreme in this Disney production. From the exotic costumes to the simple but stimulating scenery, the experience is delightfully overwhelming, recreating that awe-inspiring experience of Disney's best big-screen animation. One of the most memorable settings is a backdrop of upside-down trees that descends onto the stage followed by their right-side-up counterparts, creating the effect of a water's edge reflection against a warm orange sunset.
The team of Elton John and Tim Rice creates an enjoyable catalog of songs, including memorable numbers like the four-part "Not Me," the first act finale "The Gods Love Nubia," and the recurring "How I Know You," a duet between Aida and the likeable sidekick, Mereb. Kelly Fournier captures Amneris's newfound depth with "I Know the Truth," and Patrick Cassidy comes to life as Radames in the duet "Elaborate Lives."
But John and Rice are best when they are writing songs for Aida; her character, as performed by Simone, is strengthened, substantiated and ennobled by her music. When she sings, the rest of the world dissolves in wonder. Whatever else the modern musical has become over the last quarter-century of change and innovation, the song's still the thing. In Aida, we are transported by the music.