Much to my dismay, I discovered that the Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” was not included among the songs in the Nile-set musical “Aida” when I Googled it earlier this week. That’s how little I knew of the Elton John/Tim Rice-penned Broadway smash of a decade ago.
Which, I’ve found in my years of reviewing local high school productions, is often a good thing. Sometimes when I know a songbook well, I can’t help but frame my perceptions of the newest rendition by all those I’ve seen before (see: “Sound of Music,” versions 1-342) and it ends up muddying my view of the show. Not so with “Aida;” I had no idea what to expect.
Great Pyramids of Giza, what an incredible show! (I’m channeling Perry White more and more as my birthday draws near). I know, I know, he says that every year. But seriously, folks ... this is one you don’t want to miss. The Norwich High School Musical Club has certainly been on a roll for the past few years. While the productions have always been top-notch in my book, they really started to kick things into high gear two years ago by staging “Les Miserables.” When they topped that superb production last spring with “Phantom of the Opera,” I remember wondering where Director Mark Sands would take the troupe from there. Upping the ante even more, I’ll throw it out here that “Aida” is the best of the three, not an easy feat given my love (and aforementioned well-known affection for) the scores of its predecessors.
If, like me, you’re unfamiliar with the plot points of “Aida,” I’ll sum it up for you: In ancient Egypt, an army captain, Radames (Dillan Smith) returns from an expedition with a fresh crop of Nubian slaves (they’re at war, and Egypt is winning), including the feisty Aida (Breanna Guiffre), who catches his wandering eye. Radames, in typical musical fashion, is already promised to the seemingly vapid Princess Amneris (Mallory Norton), whose father the Pharaoh has arranged the union. But the lovely Aida isn’t your ordinary slave – she’s actually a Princess of Nubia herself, and her enslaved people in Egypt begin to look to her for inspiration even as she and Radames fall into an unlikely, and tantalizingly forbidden, love. With their countries at war and their loyalties divided, our star-crossed lovers face an uncertain future as the musical unfolds.
And unfold it does, like a gloriously rich and textured Egyptian tapestry of emotion, spectacle and song. Everything about “Aida” is sumptuously wrought, from the spectacular sets to the moody lighting to the elaborate costumes to the show-stopping production numbers. By the time Aida rises with her people in “God Loves Nubia” at the end of the first act, it was all I could do to remain in my seat. Sitting alone in a largely empty theater watching a preview dress rehearsal has its disadvantages. I try not to look like too much of a theater geek, but then I bleed it out in this column pretty much every year. Oh well. I have no shame.
Dillan Smith burst on to the stage as Enjolras in “Les Mis” two years ago and killed it as the romantic lead Raoul last year in “Phantom.” But I dare say he’s hit his highest mark here with this role, his last, unfortunately, on the NHS stage. He has a commanding stage presence for such a young man, and wow can this kid sing! Matching him move for move is Breanna Guiffre, whom I loved two years ago as Fantine in “Les Mis” and finally gets the starring role she deserves here. A lot of the time when I’m watching high school shows, I can see the kids who aren’t speaking calculating when their next line is, waiting for their mark and completely blowing any sense of realism. Breanna acts her heart out even when her character isn’t the center of attention, proving she’s fully committed to her character. And speaking of “center of attention,” once again I was blown away by Mallory Norton, who skillfully takes Amneris from giddy self-absorption to agonizing heartbreak.
Every year, I lament this is my last seeing these seniors on the Tornado stage. This year’s graduating class will be a particularly heavy loss, talent-wise. Smith, Guiffre, Norton – and fellow thesps Josh Mahannah and Justin Sawyer, who nail their supporting roles – I know Sands and crew have a tremendous amount of talent working their way up through the ranks, but this group is literally a tough act to follow.
After “Phantom” mania swept through Norwich last year (there was even a post-show exhibit at the Arts Council of all the show’s intricate set pieces), those who didn’t go wished they had. Don’t be in the group again, folks. I guarantee people will be talking about “Aida” for weeks and months to come. And at $5 a seat (and a family-friendly show to boot), you can’t beat it.
“Aida” hits the Norwich High School stage tonight and Saturday nights at 7:30, and there’s a Sunday afternoon matinee at 2:30. You can get tickets in advance at the school offices or Service Pharmacy, and they’ll also of course be selling them at the door. Get there early and get a good seat – this one’s gonna be a sellout.
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