“AIDA,” through Jan. 20, Hale Centre Theatre Centre Stage Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy (801-984-9000 or hct.org); running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
SANDY — Hale Centre Theatre’s production of “Aida” is one to add to your calendar, but not for the reason you may think.
The production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s four-time Tony Award-winning musical is the first in HCT’s technology-heavy Centre Stage Theatre in its new home at the Mountain America Performing Arts Center, which includes a state-of-the-art stage built by Tait Towers — an element that has been promoted as a highlight of the venue by theater representatives throughout the venue’s two-year construction.
But when all was said and done after Thursday night’s opening gala, it was the performances by the lead actors — not the new stage, the bright lights or the roomy seats with plenty of leg room — that left the greatest impression.
Based on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, “Aida” tells the story of a Nubian princess — Aida, played by Kandyce Marie (Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday) — and an Egyptian soldier — Radames, played by Casey Elliott (T/Th/S) — who find love in the midst of war.
Radames returns from another conquest along the Nile, bringing a group of Nubian captives back to Egypt as slaves, including Aida, whom he gifts to his fiancée, Pharaoh's daughter Amneris, played by Amy Shreeve Keeler (T/Th/S). Despite her initial hatred and disgust toward Radames, Aida finds she has more in common with the soldier than she initially thought and is soon caught in a classic love triangle. As Radames and Amneris’ wedding approaches and as Aida’s fellow captives increasingly rely on her for hope and leadership, Aida must choose whether her loyalty lies with her love or with her country.
Marie and Elliott were completely spellbinding in their performances as Aida and Radames, both in their acting and in their powerful vocals. Elliott is no stranger to the role, having played the Egyptian captain in the "Aida" national tour, China tour and in Taiwan, and it was obvious that he knows the character inside and out. Both leads delivered incredibly nuanced performances, bringing emotional depth to the roles and emphasizing often overlooked details.
One particular scene of note was during the song “Elaborate Lives” as the two declare their love. The staging included a rectangular pool of water, which Elliott and Marie used to add at times a playfulness to the scene as they splashed each other with water and at other times a deep sense of devotion as Elliott washes Marie’s feet in the pool — mirroring when Radames makes Aida wash the filth of battle off of his skin as her first act as a slave.
Shreeve as Amneris rounded out the trio of strong leads as she effectively took audiences on the character’s journey of self-discovery, going from a shallow, fashion-obsessed princess to a compassionate leader.
Also of note was Christopher Curlett’s take on Mereb (single cast). Despite the fact that his vocals didn’t quite measure up to the caliber of the other leads, he brought a refreshing humor and genuineness to the role.
From the first scene change as one set piece was lifted up with a fly system as a new set piece raised with the stage from below, the audience during the opening night performance oohed and aahed at the stage’s seamless, fluid movement.
Throughout the performance, the stage’s center column lift, four quad lifts, two large crescent lifts and two slip stages, as well as the two crane trolleys overhead, were put to good use, particularly during “Easy as a Life” as differing stage levels reflected Aida’s inner conflict and during “My Strongest Suit,” which featured aerialists as fashion photographers who spun and twirled overhead while Amneris strutted below. However, it was apparent that HCT was showing restraint in the use of its stage technology, likely choosing to save some of the tricks for later productions.
Large LED screens surround the theater, showing everything from moving images of Egyptian hieroglyphics to scenes of the Egyptian skyline as stars twinkled above. While the screens were a nice and beautiful touch at times, at other times they proved to be more of a distraction.
Despite all the technology available, many of the best scenes took place as the slip stage was in place and the stage was bare, allowing for raw storytelling to unfold and the actors and actresses to shine — including the powerful, chills-inducing ensemble number “The Gods Love Nubia.”
The production did have its flaws, which is to be expected as the cast and crew adjust to their new surroundings. The sound system needs fine-tuning — sometimes the volume seemed to fluctuate in the middle of a song and other times the music overpowered the singers — as could some of the staging choices. Although it may be impossible to give every audience member a perfect view at all times when staging theater-in-the-round, there were a few instances where significant portions of the audience had completely obstructed views, mostly due to the size of set pieces. Additionally, some transitions between scenes were awkward and unnatural, especially the Cheetah Dance, featuring a female dancer dressed as a cheetah dancing on a table as four men with whips danced around her.
Yes, HCT’s new location may have all the bells and whistles, but what makes “Aida” shine is the basics — the acting, the singing and the story — which is exactly as it should be.
Content advisory: “Aida” has mild action and mild innuendo.