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A Marvel and a Mess 

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Aida

Walt Disney Theatrical Productions

at the Cadillac Palace Theatre

Dinah Was

Northlight Theatre

at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Albert Williams

The back-to-back openings of Dinah Was and Aida last week offer telling evidence of what makes a musical play succeed. Both shows feature proud black women struggling with oppression and their own turbulent emotions, and both productions are the work of Chicago directors who've maintained their local connections while achieving resounding success on Broadway and in regional theater. Northlight Theatre's Dinah Was opened December 8 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, and Aida premiered the next night downtown at the lavishly renovated Cadillac Palace (formerly Bismarck) Theatre. What a difference a day makes: Dinah Was is one of the best musicals I've ever seen here, Aida one of the worst.

By their nature musicals shift gears regularly, skipping back and forth between song and speech, comedy and drama, intimacy and spectacle. More like movies than nonmusical plays, they're almost always group efforts written by a team (composers, lyricists, playwrights), while the conceptual and directorial duties are often shared by a director, a choreographer, and one or more producers. The actors--whose performances help determine whether a production gets raves or pans--must be replaceable because the vocal and physical demands of a musical are much more taxing than those of a "straight" play, making it likelier that viewers will see a standby or understudy.

Given these conditions, what makes a musical work is consistency of vision and purpose--which Dinah Was has and Aida doesn't. Every aspect of Dinah Was clicks with every other aspect, giving it coherence and momentum. The live-wire performance of leading lady E. Faye Butler is bolstered by the intelligently integrated efforts of director David Petrarca, playwright Oliver Goldstick, musical supervisor Jason Robert Brown (who arranged the show's score of classic jazz and pop tunes), choreographer George Faison, and designers Michael Yeargan (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Robert Perry (lights), and Rob Milburn (sound). In contrast, Aida is a patchwork quilt whose all-too-evident loose ends constantly threaten to unravel. Tried out last year in Atlanta under the title Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida, and much revised since that technically troubled production's poor reception, it's as much a showpiece for a compelling black singer-actress as Dinah Was. But no star could salvage the ineptly coordinated contributions of director Robert Falls, songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, choreographer Wayne Cilento, book writers Linda Woolverton, David Henry Hwang, and Falls, designers Bob Crowley (sets and costumes), Natasha Katz (lights), and Steve C. Kennedy (sound).

Based on the same legend that inspired Verdi's 1871 opera, Aida concerns a sexual triangle: the title character, a Nubian princess forced into Egyptian slavery, is loved by Radames, the military leader who captured her, but he's betrothed to Amneris, daughter of the pharaoh. (Amneris's father is being slowly and secretly poisoned by Radames's father, the high priest Zoser, in a bid for power.) Amneris starts out as an airhead but learns humility and compassion when she discovers the affair between her betrothed and her servant: in her first act as heir apparent to the Egyptian throne, she decrees that the traitors Aida and Radames will be entombed alive--but, in a show of mercy, together. (Some have speculated that Amneris's transformation from self-centered narcissist to populist princess may reflect John's vision of his late friend Princess Diana.)

Much praise has been heaped on Heather Headley, who stars as Aida. Unfortunately she was out the night I saw the show, but standby Thursday Farrar, with her dignified demeanor and rich, deep, resonant voice, was more than adequate. Sherie Rene Scott's understated performance as Amneris gives the role more humanity than it has in the script; and Adam Pascal as Radames looks good, moves well, and sings like Neil Diamond, though his raspy voice is too facile to be emotionally credible. The supporting cast--including John Hickock as Zoser, Daniel Oreskes as a pontifical pharaoh, Tyrees Allen as the Nubian king, and Damian Perkins as Aida's fellow slave and sidekick--is also capable.

But Aida's muddled script and score have obviously been thrown together by committee: the only consistent quality here is mediocrity. John's puerile (though prettily arranged) melodies are anchored to simpleminded, singsongy, sometimes downright silly lyrics that come nowhere near Rice's sophisticated libretto for Chess. ("For just because I've triumphed as a slaver / Of this and every month I'm now the flavor," Radames sings at one point.) Never mind Verdi; Aida doesn't hold up well next to Jesus Christ Superstar--or to John and Rice's score for The Lion King, as a jokey reference to that movie's hit song "The Circle of Life" ill-advisedly reminds us. As for the script, it's a confused mix of subadolescent sitcom humor and kitschy sword-and-sandal-flick pomposity: imagine a cross between Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Joan Collins in Land of the Pharaohs. It's certainly difficult to believe that Hwang, who so insightfully deconstructed Eurocentric grand opera in his drama M. Butterfly, had a hand in this. "He was as healthy as the sacred bull when I left," Radames says to Zoser of the ailing pharaoh. "The bull is not so well either," Zoser replies. When Radames sends Aida to serve as Amneris's handmaiden, the ditzy princess's delighted response is "A slave who knows her fabrics? I'm keeping her!"

The script's jarringly uneven tone reflects a deliberately anachronistic approach also apparent in Cilento's often cheesy music-video choreography and, more successfully, in Crowley's often lovely designs, which juxtapose Egyptian motifs--hieroglyphic eyes, cats, palm trees, pyramids--with stylish contemporary elements. The slightly futuristic costumes wouldn't look out of place in a syndicated sci-fi TV series--though the show wouldn't make it to pilot season. The set's most striking image is a bird's-eye view of a Hockney-esque swimming pool, an illusion created by suspending swimsuited dancers from harnesses behind a shimmering blue curtain. (The result suggests a water ballet version of Peter Pan.) Crowley's picture-postcard compositions and the elegant, shifting patterns of Katz's lights are best appreciated from a distance, as I discovered at the decidedly unsold-out Sunday-evening show I attended when I moved from my main-floor seat to the nearly empty mezzanine: if you must go to Aida, sit there or in the balcony.

But why go to Aida when you can see the terrific, less expensive Dinah Was? LA-based playwright Goldstick's portrait of Chicago-bred blues diva Dinah Washington features sharp one-liners and snappy exchanges that keep the show crackling even when it's probing the troubled side of Washington's personality. This is no sentimental whitewash of the singer, whose rapid rise from teenage talent-contest winner to the top of the R & B and pop charts was cut short in 1963 when she died at age 39 from too much pills and liquor. Dinah Was depicts a woman who, as she says here, could be "very generous" or "one coldhearted evil bitch," driving her friends away even as she drove herself on.

The show begins in 1959 at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, where Washington has been booked as the headliner. Making her first entrance, she's got a flunky to tote her suitcases--but she's hauling around more than enough emotional baggage herself. Informed that she'll have to stay in a "first-class" trailer out back, Washington stages a one-woman sit-down strike in the hotel lobby, refusing to sing until she gets a suite appropriate to her stature. Perched on her luggage in an ankle-length white mink coat, a lacy black slip, and little else, she flashes back to the professional and personal battles that have shaped her combative attitude. Besides racist confrontations, these include her relationship with a rigidly religious mama who strongly disapproved of her decision to abandon gospel for jazz, the stylistic and personal compromises she made in order to cross over to mainstream musical success, and the relationships with men whose love she craved so desperately that she went through multiple marriages. Changing her name from Ruth Jones and leaving her sons behind in Chicago to be raised by their grandmother, Dinah Washington became the "queen of the blues"--but the throne she inherited from Bessie Smith was a lonely one. Dinah Was both celebrates Washington's talent and bravery in battling racial and sexual injustices and laments her self-destructive tendencies: the abusive bullying of people who cared for her, her dependence on drugs and alcohol, and her arrogant obstinacy--the flip side of her courage and strength.

A shrewd mix of musical drama and jazz concert, Dinah Was weaves into its slickly structured journey through time a string of famous Washington tunes written by the likes of Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Brook Benton, Clyde Otis, and Washington herself. "This Bitter Earth," "Long John Blues," and inevitably "What a Diff'rence a Day Made" (her syrupy crossover hit, rendered here in a rollicking, risk-taking jazz version) are among the numbers that Butler delivers in a rich, throbbing, alternately lush and gritty voice that recalls Washington while establishing Butler as a star in her own right. The story and songs always support each other, while Goldstick's potentially formulaic handling of Washington's biography is elevated by his smart, sassy dialogue. Petrarca and Faison's staging is brisk and fluid; the gestures that accompany Butler's singing are precise yet always seem spontaneous; and one semidance scene between Washington and a footloose saxophone player is a beautiful, startlingly graphic combination of grace and eroticism that's all the more effective because the actors remain clothed.

Butler's powerhouse performance--regal yet always cognizant of the insecurity and anger behind Washington's confident attitude--is superbly supported by Darryl Alan Reed (who not only acts and sings but plays a mean sax) as Washington's lovers; Jeffrey Hutchinson as, among other characters, Washington's loyal, quietly gay manager; Matt DeCaro as the Sahara's mobbed-up manager and the blustery head of Mercury Records; and most notably Carla J. Hargove, who deftly etches Washington's disapproving mother, her long-suffering secretary, and a timid kitchen worker who displays a rafter-raising R & B voice of her own. Pianist William Knowles leads the crack onstage quintet, and the ever-changing set carries us clearly through the script's numerous scene changes. Dinah Was is no model of Sondheimian subtlety, but it's a crisp, cohesive exemplar of focused, efficient musical theater.

Of course Dinah Was has had more time than Aida to get its act together: this touring production--presented jointly by Northlight, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the Dallas Theatre Center, and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (where Dinah Was travels after its engagement here)--is a slightly revised and recast version of a show that originally played at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run last year. Aida is still a work in progress, but I can't imagine anything short of a wholesale rewrite salvaging it for its planned Broadway opening in March.

Interestingly, Dinah Was and Aida are both the work of directors affiliated with the Goodman Theatre: Petrarca is a resident director, while Falls is of course the artistic director. Both shows reflect the emergence of the young turks of off-Loop theater in the 1970s and '80s onto the national Broadway and regional-theater scene--and Aida has other significant Chicago connections as well. The Disney executive team responsible for it includes Peter Schneider of the old Saint Nicholas Theatre Company and Stuart Oken, cofounder of the Apollo Theater Center, while the president of the expensively refurbished Cadillac Palace is Michael Leavitt, who not so long ago was scrambling around town directing for troupes like Pegasus Players and the now-defunct Absolute Theatre Company. Longtime observers of off-Loop theater can take pride in these fellows' success while holding them to the standard of the high-quality (but low-cost) work that established their reputations. By that or any standard, Dinah Was is a triumph that affirms the strength of regional nonprofit theater, while Aida sounds either a wake-up call or the death knell for the overpriced extravaganzas that have come to dominate Broadway in the last 20 years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Bland.

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