- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

Working without a net, by Disney standards, means no wacky sidekicks or glorious animation on which to fall back.

Disney's "Aida," created by Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice, abandons the company's creative crutches to reveal a crowd-pleasing love story with a social conscience.

"Aida," running through Aug. 18 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, packs a deceptively simple story line with the kind of emotional heft that made classics such as "Bambi" and "Dumbo" such melodramatic marvels.

The energetic production, on the road for more than a year, showed no signs of fatigue Thursday during the first night of its six-week District run. If anything, the crisp ensemble appears in midcity form.

The pop musical tackles racism, oppression and the nuances of love with a nimble touch unexpected from the Disney dream machine.

The production opens in an evocative Egyptian museum but soon flashes back centuries to a time when Egypt sought to conquer neighboring Nubia.

Egyptian war hero Radames is about to marry Princess Amneris after a nine-year arranged betrothal. One of the slaves Radames brings back from his days plundering Nubia, the feisty Princess Aida, gives his heart pause.

This thoroughly modern maiden makes a strong impression on the besotted warrior, who is drawn to her independent streak as well as her beauty. She, in turn, admires the kindness beneath his gladiator shell.

The first half's few but effective comic moments give way to the full-on tragedy promised by the Giuseppe Verdi opera from which the show draws its name and inspiration.

"Aida's" love triangle wouldn't hurt so good if not for its three superlative leads. Paulette Ivory's initial readings as Aida sound labored, as if she were weighed down by the burdens of such a meaty role. Once she breaks into her first number, "The Past Is Another Land," any flaws in her delivery vanish.

Jeremy Kushnier's Radames makes a silky shift between warrior and smitten everyman. His tender caress of "Elaborate Lives," the lovely ballad that provides the show's emotional compass, lends Mr. Rice's lyrics a deeper soul.

Together, Miss Ivory and Mr. Kushnier generate a heat no amount of Disney magic could summon on its own.

Perhaps most welcome is the comic work of bombshell Kelli Fournier as Amneris, the clotheshorse princess with delicious depth to her character. Her transformation from ice princess to reluctant ruler is but one of the show's many victories.

Give director Robert Falls, who helped the original production find its final, Tony-winning stride, credit for keeping the trio in such fine form.

Though traveling shows may feature scaled-down sets and designs, "Aida's" stage sparkles with wit and splendor. Brightly colored scrims, silhouetted warriors and a steam-room scene as vampy as an Esther Williams musical all add up to a visual experience worthy of the Disney moniker.

Natasha Katz's high-tech lighting maximizes the Opera House's flexible setting, while the choreography never trumps the score or the trio's roiling emotions.

The show's missteps are few and easily forgiven. "My Strongest Suit," a Supremes-style dance number set in the aforementioned sauna, features a too-fabulous fashion show that derails the show's otherwise concise plotting.

Mr. Rice's Cliff Notes-style musings mar a few songs in the first act, but once the romance establishes itself, his lyrics find their mark. The mind behind "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" rebounds as soon as wonderful songs such as "How I Know You" take center stage.

The production's rock underpinnings should come as no surprise with Mr. John's music as its anchor. The icon's arrangements are the strongest he has written in years, if not a decade.

By leaving behind the comfort of its animated vault, Disney has created a work sturdy and mature enough to stand alone. "Aida's" pop sensibilities and iconoclastic heroines give it as contemporary a feel as any musical set in ancient Egyptian can muster.


WHAT: Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida"

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 17; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and Aug. 15. No evening performance Aug. 18.

TICKETS: $20 to $79

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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