Well this was just a bad idea.
The Constellation Theatre Company, which has turned the Source Theatre on 14th Street into the most interesting, intimate black box in town, did itself no favors with the selection of Aida, a big, exclamation point-filled Broadway musical that’s probably best enjoyed from the 10th or 12th row. Source doesn’t even have a 10th row.
I was worried size would be the issue — and, sure enough, there are terrible problems with the sound mixing, and the scale is all off, like pointing a telescope at someone eight feet away — but the real problem is tone. Aida, all sincerity and Egyptian-prince-loves-a-slave-who’s-really-a-princess melodrama, is just too operatically … genuine. Constellation excels at finding the shades of grey in archetypal stories; the best parts of their last two musicals (The Wild Party and Urinetown) weren’t the soaring solos, but the snark and the snide side-angles, offering much needed humor and perspective.
In more ways than one Aida, based on an opera by Verdi and directed here by Michael J. Bobbitt, does not benefit from the extreme closeup.
The title figure (played by Shayla S. Simmons) is Nubian royalty captured and reclaimed by Egyptian invaders. Before even reaching the palace of pharaohs, she makes a impression on Radames (Jobari Parker-Namdar), a swashbuckling captain who decides to make Aida a gift to his longterm fiancé, Amneris (Chani Wereley), the daughter of the king. But she’s also recognized for the princess she is by Mereb (Da’Von Moody), a Nubian less new to life in captivity, and as the threat she represents by Radames’s father, Zoser (Greg Watkins). All of these characters get huge, bring-down-the-house musical numbers (written by those famed African composers, Elton John and Tim Rice), which helps to hide the fact that for most of the show, none of them do much besides plot things and fall in moon-eyed love with each other.
The score, with lots of cheesy electric guitar and keyboard parts that sound like they’re sweating through their final reps, is an early 2000s bungle. And that’s when it doesn’t drown out singers trying to make peace between the warring factions of “body mics” and “head pieces.”
The no-sequin-is-too-many costumes are a general case of more is less, but at least they match the ultra-shiny, angular set, whose multicolored lights and random hieroglyphics make it look like a 1970s game show. I kept expecting Aida to win a matching washer-dryer.
To be sure, the show has its high points. “Written in the Stars” isn’t so much performed as it is survived, but Simmons and Parker-Namdar do a better job with “Elaborate Lives.” And Wereley kicks the crap out of “I Know the Truth,” a jilted lover ballad that comes right when you need it. She and Moody are the actors you’d be most eager to see in something else.
In fact, that no doubt be a relief for all involved.