Bob Crowley did the scenic design for Les Liaison Dangereuses. It was a breathtaking mixture of boldness and simplicity. The various bedrooms were all done in one room, with no changes whatsoever. Looming over it was a chest of drawers of celestial proportions that was fairly exploding with clothes.
Crowley creates a similar, though infinitely more fluid, blend of visual excitement, apt symbolism and economy of means in Disney's Aida. Watching the scenes evolve against the background of the music is the show's greatest pleasure -- and well worth the price of admission.
In other mega-musicals, like Miss Saigon, one admires the brilliant effects. That's different than being moved by the beauty of a presentation. And, in many of those other shows, one's enjoyment of the spectacle is marred by a lingering fear that the actors, if they manage not to get crushed, must at the very least suffer from horrendous anxiety as they leap on and off moving platforms and dodge beneath helicopters, Cadillacs and whatever.
In the Broadway in New Orleans Series' current offering of Aida at the Saenger, the stage craft (including, of course, the phenomenal lighting by Natasha Katz) supports the actors, rather than encumbering their performances.
This praise is not meant as a backhanded slap at the cast, who are quite simply excellent. Paulette Ivory (Aida) was unfairly gifted by nature -- to have such a voice, such good looks and such a strong presence. She is ably seconded by Jeremy Kushner as her lover, Radames. She also receives support from the versatile Lisa Brescia, who mines comic gold as the fashion victim Amneris as well as conveying an appropriate dignity after her implausible rebirth as a socially conscious, peacenik pharoah-ette (but more about plausibility later). The same accolades can be bestowed on Eric Christian (Mereb), Robert Neary (Zoser) and the dance ensemble.
While we're talking about the good stuff, let's add much of Elton John's music and many of Tim Rice's lyrics. The hilarious celebration of fashion by Amneris and her handmaidens was probably my favorite number. Although, even as I gave in to the blissfully insouciant rock 'n' roll, I was somewhat troubled by a thought: How are we going to get from here back to "noble lovers entombed alive"? Or, to be more honest -- since some of the problems of the serious story were already starting to show -- I was troubled by the thought that this first-act moment was an island of trivial delight to which we were unlikely to return.
As for the serious story, there isn't one -- in any meaningful sense of the word. What the book does is elaborately "indicate" a serious intent, but in terms so juvenile and implausible that the "serious" part of your brain goes into a sort of hibernation. This wouldn't matter if the show was a musical update of Cosi Fan Tutte or The Barber of Seville. But Aida?
How do we know Aida is a proud, strong, empowered kind of girl? Why, she grabs a sword from the hulking Egyptian soldiery and overwhelms a bunch of them. Of course, in Gladiator, which was apparently meant to be a serious film, they established that the hero was a tough dude by having him trounce three armed centurions, although he was weaponless and his own hands were bound. Understatement is clearly a thing the past.
This level of fantasy -- a fantasy corrupted by the need to avoid all stain of ambiguity in the characters or the moral structure of the universe -- increases as the story continues. How do we know Radames is a really a good guy (and that, therefore, it's OK for the noble Aida to love him)? He gives everything he has away to the enslaved Nubians -- whatever that's supposed to mean. Who knows? But, we see some of the thrilled Nubians running out of his tent, carrying a carpet or a dress or whatever. And is Aida impressed!
Meanwhile, delightful airhead Amneris suddenly realizes that the Egyptian armies, when they make war, enslave people and steal their things. No more trinkets for her! She must transform into a conscience-stricken anti-imperialist, so that we will know, in the end, the lovers have not died in vain.
One could go on and on, but why bother? It's possible to write rock 'n' roll musicals that are fun to watch and also give us something to think about. But the attempts that I've seen to recast grand opera as pop opera (like Aida, Rent and Miss Saigon) merely point up the advantages of the older, more complex approach to music and drama. It's not that the older operas were more realistic, but where they created tragic archetypes, we substitute adolescent daydreams.