With 'Aida,' Disney may become Pharaoh of Broadway

Whether "Aida" the musical will prove to be a hit equal to its sister Disney shows, "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" is yet to be determined, given the mixed reviews that greeted its Broadway opening last week.

No matter the outcome, the House that M. Mouse built has become more of a bicoastal residence as it spreads out around Times Square.

For example:

*"Beauty and the Beast" is now in its sixth year on Broadway. It is also playing in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid, as well as touring the United States.

*"The Lion King" (also a hot ticket in London) has been sold out since its premire on Broadway in 1997.

Now they're joined by "Aida," which has opened at a venerable old vaudeville house, the Palace Theatre, on Broadway and 47th Street.

These productions only skim the surface of Disney's growing presence in and around Times Square. In addition to its purchase and restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street for "The Lion King," Disney has plunked down a huge souvenir store on the corner of 42nd and Times Square, and is building a skyscraper less than a block away.

Disney's investments have launched a renewal along 42nd Street: The old, run-down theaters that housed small off-Broadway troupes are now being refurbished.

That's good news for the city, in terms of upgrading the area, but bad news for small theater groups that want to be in this attractive midtown location, teeming with tourists. Some off-off Broadway troupes are being forced out by high rents.

"Aida" is the first of the Disney shows not spawned by a film and the first to focus on adult audiences.

With stripped-down sets that look like they could be packed in a trunk for touring, a smallish cast by Broadway musical standards (25 on stage and a 16-piece pit band), and choreography and lighting effects that mimic rock concerts, "Aida" straddles the line between a stage musical and a pop-music attraction.

An all-purpose Elton John score aims to attract audiences that quickly snatch up concert tickets but are slow to attend the theater. Mr. John and his lyricist, Tim Rice, provided the score for "The Lion King" - on film and stage - which garnered Oscar, Tony, and Grammy awards.

Guiseppe Verdi turned the legend of Ada into an opera that premired in 1871. It had been commissioned by the khedive of Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Disney's "Aida" tells the same story, but underlines the interracial aspects of the love story while adding an improbable upbeat ending.

Director Robert Falls (a Tony-winner for his direction of last season's revival of "Death of a Salesman") was brought in to rescue the project after a disastrous Atlanta tryout in 1998.

The musical tells the story of a love triangle between Aida, a Nubian princess forced into slavery; Amneris, an Egyptian princess; and Radames, the soldier they both love. The story begins when Amneris steps down from her glass display case to sing the opening number, "Every Story is a Love Story." Radames and Aida are visitors at the exhibit. It is here where they catch each other's attention.

The storyline has problems galore, especially in the character of Amneris, who comes across as an addled teenager who then grows into a monarch who is really good at heart for no apparent reason. The dialogue - credited to Mr. Falls, Linda Woolverton, and David Henry Hwang (who wrote "M. Butterfly") - gives little support to the performers.

Happily, the show is redeemed by the casting of the three central roles and the splendid sets and costumes designed by Bob Crowley, who won a Tony for "Carousel" several seasons back.

Heather Headley, Broadway's newest sensation, is cast as Aida. She made her Disney debut in "The Lion King," but here comes into full stardom. As Aida, she displays a full-throated, emotive voice full of gospel fervor.

Adam Pascal, last seen in "Rent," is Radames. An accomplished pop singer, he's a handsome presence as the romantic hero. Sherie Ren Scott has a harder job as Amneris, given the inconsistencies of her character, but she certainly can sell a song.

Don't sell "Aida" down the Nile just yet. Headley's intense performance, Elton John fans, and good word-of-mouth may keep "Aida" in New York for a long time to come.

* 'Aida' is playing at the Palace Theatre at Broadway and 47nd Street. For tickets, log on to www.ticketmaster.com or call (212) 307-4747.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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