By R. Eli Townsend
Thingamajig Theatre Company is opening their 2017 Summer Season with the sweeping and bold musical, ‘Aida’ and that epic undertaking has paid off as the legendary story of forbidden love ignites the stage at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, opening tonight, Friday June 16 at 6:00pm.
The professional theater, led by producing artistic director Tim Moore, has cast the right voices to make this Elton John and Tim Rice musical pop. At the same time, Moore employs minimized staging in a stripped-down version of what originally was a glitzy, elaborately staged musical on Broadway and national tour.
Leading the cast is the breathtaking vocal powerhouse Jameelah Leaundra of New York in the title role, as the Nubian princess and the golden-voiced Pagosa favorite, Luke Hefner of Knoxville, TN as the dashing Egyptian soldier Radames. Their voices are so beautifully matched and their chemistry so strong on stage, you can’t get enough of them.
The musical, which is rarely produced professionally due to its exceedingly difficult vocal demands, has a sizzling array of pop, R&B, reggae and gospel-style tunes, a fabulous score that earned Sir Elton John a 2000 Tony Award for best score. Based on the Verdi opera, the musical — originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions — tells the story of a love triangle among the slave Aida, Egyptian Princess Amneris and the Egyptian Captain Radames as Nubia and Egypt are at war.
Ms. Leaundra delights from the moment her enslaved Aida challenges Radames’ egocentric way of thinking (the first to ever do so) in the song “Enchantment Passing Through.” Mr. Hefner makes it clear that Radames, though engaged to Amneris, is both confounded by and irresistibly magnetized by Aida. She turns this warrior’s life upside down and their show-stopping power ballad, “Elaborate Lives,” aches with desire.
As Amneris, New York actor Heather McCall shows us once again why she’s a leading lady to be reckoned with. Ms. McCall has a cool, rock edge to her voice that shows range, experience, and expertise. Her portrayal as the spoiled, girly-girl princess in the first act, grows effortlessly as she transitions into maturity in act two.
The three principal performers create dramatic intensity in the moving, “Not Me” as each of their characters expresses emotional turmoil. You’d be hard pressed to find a more dynamic trio to lead such a vocally demanding production.
Dance and costuming are expertly woven into this production, which traditionally highlights the singing and acting most. Costume designer Adrienne Young has assembled some of the most beautiful dresses to grace the Pagosa stage for Amneris to feature and her design for each principal and ensemble members is spot on in terms of both efficiency and supporting the director’s vision of the show. While dance may take a bit of a backseat to the vocals, ensemble members playing handmaidens execute a lovely dance break with Ms. McCall in the rocking “My Strongest Suit,” which celebrates the princess’s love of fashion. Paired with some astonishing voices, the Act One closer “The Gods Love Nubia” features the best musical theatre; it’s a number you won’t soon forget.
Directed and choreographed by Melissa Firlit (with selected pieces choreographed by Paul Thiemann), its steady hand reminds you, that you don’t need a big numbers to pull this show off: with a cast of roughly 18 actors the power and impact of ‘Aida’ shines due the talent of each performer. Notable supporting cast includes Dan Morrison as the Pharaoh, who has plans for Radames to marry his daughter Amneris (after 9 years of ‘dating’), Stanford alum Robert Poole as loyal Nubian Mereb, and the absolutely riveting Gabrielle Beckford as Nehebka; her performance throughout the musical is magnetic. The ensemble is full of treats, and their teamwork together creates a unity that is sought after in so many productions.
Above all, ‘Aida’ is an unforgettable story of love that grows amid a time of crisis. With seating on three sides of Thingamajig’s black box stage, this up-close production of the sweeping musical creates an intimate experience you won’t soon forget.
“Aida” opens this summer’s season tonight, joined by “Hairspray” opening June 23, “Big River” opening July 8 and “Sister Act” opening July 15. The four shows will be performed in rotation until the end of August.
Thingamajig Theatre Company presents, ‘Disney’s Aida’ at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. Rated PG-13. Directed and Choreographed by Melissa Firlit, with selected pieces choreographed by Paul Thiemann. Opening June 16, playing through August 25.