By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
Twenty years ago, if you wanted to see a new(ish) musical in Orlando, you’d have at least a couple of choices. But nowadays, with the deaths of Orlando’s long-lived community and dinner theaters, it’s not so easy. You can drive 20 or 30 or 40 miles to one of the small-town community theaters in outlying areas. Or you can turn to a little company like Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, which, with productions of such shows as Rent and Jekyll & Hyde, is trying mightily to step into the breach.
With Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, GOAT is playing to its strengths – finding casts full of big-voiced young actors and letting them raise the roof. That’s Aida’s forte, but it’s also Aida’s weakness. With so much belting, the musical’s charms have no room to breathe.
This Disney musical, I have to say, has grown on me. The 2000 Broadway production came off as passable only because it was so much better than a misbegotten earlier version, which played Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1998. But after a couple of viewings Elton John’s generic melodies have become more appealing, and the show’s goofy factor – mainly arising from Amneris, the fashion-obsessed Egyptian princess – has grown, well, a lot more pleasingly goofy.
That’s mostly here in GOAT’s production, which Paul Castaneda directed, with Terry Wolfe as musical director. It’s fun to watch actor Krystal Gillette to see what her Amneris will be wearing next (and a couple of her flashier-than-flashy gowns are gorgeous). And there are so many strong voices among the 20-member cast (listen, especially, to Lloyd Taylor II as Mereb) that some of the songs sound pretty swell.
Castaneda, who is working on a small budget, has wisely avoided much scenery in the little Goldman Theater: A couple of platforms and a red banner or two serve for most of the set. Unfortunately, he and Wolfe have decided to mike the cast, and in a theater that seats only 118, all that amplification makes the experience feel less intimate rather than more. When the actors are only 20 feet away and you can’t tell which of them is singing, that’s a problem. And when the amplification is turned up so high that you have to hold your ears, any subtlety of acting is lost.
So Adam McCabe’s Radames, the Egyptian captain/hero, seems to shout most of his music: McCabe has presence but his voice sounds ragged, and by the end of the run it’s going to be even more so. The appealing Gillette loses much of the comedy in her big number, “My Strongest Suit,” because she’s pushing so hard (and also because Amneris’ handmaidens are pulling focus behind her). And Desirée Perez, who plays the Nubian princess Aida, is almost all belt. Her mighty voice overwhelms a beautiful song like “The Gods Love Nubia,” when she’s singing with others; when she’s alone it’s just too much.
Too bad that Perez, who was very good as Joanne in GOAT’s Rent, seems to put so much emphasis on her singing that she gives the show’s romance short shrift: One minute her Aida is aloof and the next minute she’s head over heels, with nothing to show why.
And some of the staging is a little halting: Entrances are consistently slow, and the handmaidens’ fashion show feels choppy.
Some of that seems strange because the dramas Castaneda has directed for GOAT haven’t had that choppy quality. Maybe it’s the large cast of relatively inexperienced actors here; maybe it’s just too much American Idol, where all anyone is encouraged to do is belt. In theaters as small as the Goldman, I’m hoping that someone will realize that miking makes no sense – and that musical theater needs to be a whole lot subtler than rock. When you’re looking for story as well as song, ear plugs aren’t the answer.
- What: Greater Orlando Actors Theatre production of Elton John-Tim Rice-Linda Woolverton-Robert Falls-David Henry Hwang musical.
- Where: Goldman Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
- When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 13.
- Running time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
- Cost: $18 general, $15 seniors and students.
- Call: 407-407-872-8451.Online: goatgroup.org.
Photo: Desirée Perez and Adam McCabe, courtesy of Greater Orlando Actors Theatre.