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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chicago Theater: Five Reasons to See Bailiwick Chicago's 'AIDA'

I must confess that I've never been a big fan of Elton John and Tim Rice's musical, AIDA, about a love triangle set in ancient Egypt.  The show had a pre-Broadway tryout here in Chicago back in 1999, but despite a talented cast that included Heather Headley, Adam Pascal and Sherie René Scott, the one thing I remember most about it is a set mishap with a suspended "tomb" during its run that slightly injured both Headley and Pascal. The musical was an odd combination of campy satire and serious romance that never quite gelled for me, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see Bailiwick Chicago's new production last week. But I'm very happy to report that I enjoyed AIDA much more the second time around - and here are my five reasons to check it out:

All photos are by Foster Garvin, Jr.

1) Rashada Dawn and Brandon Chandler: It always helps to have two amazing actors in the lead roles - and, fortunately, Bailiwick's AIDA has Dawn and Chandler as Nubian slave Aida and Radames, the Egyptian soldier that she falls in love with. This attractive duo can really sing, and together on stage they have great chemistry, making us care deeply about their characters' ultimate fate.

2) Adrianna Parson: It also helps to have a delightful diva who knows how to steal every scene she is in. Ms. Parson, who is a Senior Musical Theatre Major at Roosevelt University, blew me away with her hilarious performance as Amneris, the Pharaoh's spoiled and self-obsessed daughter who is engaged to Radames. This funny girl had the audience wrapped firmly around her little finger throughout the show, and I look forward to seeing her again on stage.

3) The score: I couldn't remember any songs from the original production, but there are quite a few hummable tunes worth noting. "My Strongest Suit" is a comedy highlight of the first act that makes us fall for the amusing Amneris, while "Elaborate Lives" is an effective and emotional duet between Aida and Radames. The Act 2 opener, "A Step Too Far", was one of my favorite scenes as Aida, Radames and Amneris all sing about their conflicted loyalties and emotions. I might just have to add this cast recording to my show tune collection.

4) Great lighting, sound and direction: I was amazed by what Bailiwick Chicago was able to accomplish on such a small stage. Here's a big Broadway musical with a cast of 20 and an orchestra of six (who definitely deserve kudos for making the score soar to new heights - at least for me), and director Scott Ferguson successfully brings it all together in a very cohesive and visually interesting fashion that made me care about the characters. The original production left me cold as I felt disconnected from the action, while Bailiwick's much more intimate show makes one feel like they're actually in the musical. Lighting Designer Jared B. Moore and Sound Designer Sarah N. Ramos need to also be congratulated on a job well done since their individual achievements help to make this AIDA worth seeing.

5) Fabulous costumes: And last but certainly not least are the creative costumes featured in the show. I especially liked quilt artist Nina Henderson's enormous and colorful handmade robe for Aida, which reminded me of Joseph's technicolor dreamcoat. And Bailiwick Chicago selected four fashion designers - Maria Danae Mandis, Emily Rohm, Christina Telkamp and Kevin Vong - to each create a unique and Egypt-inspired dress to be worn during the song, "My Strongest Suit". It's a brief but memorable moment as four female cast members put on a fashion show, and I was impressed to learn of the theater company's collaboration with these talented artists.

Bailiwick Chicago's AIDA doesn't resolve the sometimes abrupt switch from campy satire with a modern twist to old-fashioned melodrama, but this really didn't bother me as much as before.  With an excellent ensemble of actors (especially the three leads) and the superb direction of Scott Ferguson, Bailiwick's production is one of the most entertaining evenings of theater currently playing in Chicago.  I give this AIDA two thumbs up.

Bailwick Chicago's AIDA runs through August 1 at American Theater Company (1909 W. Byron St). For tickets, call the box office at 866-811-4111 or order online at Below you can watch director Scott Ferguson and Bailiwick Chicago's Executive Director Kevin Mayes discuss the production.

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