- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

The Disney brand name always has stood for top-flight animation and a suffocating array of Mouse-eared merchandise.
Now, with three Broadway hits in a row under its belt, the house that Mickey built can say it has established a beachhead on the Great White Way.
The company's third and latest theatrical show, Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida," makes its Washington debut Tuesday at the Kennedy Center for a six-week engagement.
When Disney hired Sir Tim and Sir Elton to create the music for its animated "The Lion King" (1994), the move was akin to the New York Yankees adding slugger Jason Giambi to its superstar lineup.
That film begat the company's second Broadway smash of the same name, coming on the heels of "Beauty and the Beast."
The formula clicked again with "Aida," even if it skipped the Hollywood treatment.
"They originally suggested ['Aida] be an animated film. We felt we had done that," says lyricist Mr. Rice, in a phone call from his native England. "We were about to pass on it [when we said], 'Why not try a stage show?'"
Disney warmed to the thought, he says. What Mickey Mouse operation would reject a suggestion from its musical heavy hitters?
"Aida" marries contemporary musical styles with the tale of a Nubian princess in love with an Egyptian army captain, Radames, who also is the betrothed of the Egyptian princess Amneris.
This spin on Verdi's tragic opera bowed in New York City in March 2000 and went on to win four Tony Awards.
The production, though, hit more than a few snags along the way. A problematic pyramid set, later abandoned, nettled cast and crew. Critics also bristled at the show's campy characterizations during a test run in Atlanta.
Mr. Rice, best known for his lyrical work on "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," says the Atlanta show merely represented a work in progress.
"It was perceived that Atlanta was a disaster. It wasn't," he says. The shows, he says, revealed a potentially engaging project that still needed some adjustments.
New director Robert Falls snipped away some of the broad humor and bookended the piece with scenes set in a modern-day Egyptian museum.
Such a process demands patience, something Mr. Rice has grown accustomed to in his mercurial career.
Some of his works, from "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita," took a critical hammering before time, and the packed theaters, changed the debate.
No matter the barbs, he always took solace in the number and quality of musicians who took interest in his songs.
"Virtually every major singer has recorded my stuff over the years, from Elvis Presley to Bing Crosby," he says. "They thought it was good enough for them to do."
Collaborating with Mr. John forced Mr. Rice to reverse his songwriting process. Typically, Mr. Rice writes the words to freshly composed music. Mr. John's style operates in the opposite fashion, and Mr. Rice was happy to oblige.
"It was slightly nice, rather a fresh thing for me," says Mr. Rice of the turnaround. The pair completed much of "Aida" over fax and phone lines.
Getting to sing the songs of Mr. John and Mr. Rice is but one perk for D.C. native Anika Ellis.
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts graduate, who appears in the traveling "Aida" show, never imagined she would be cradling Mr. John's notes on stages nationwide.
She began with the "Aida" touring company in February 2001 at its starting point in Minneapolis. She plays Nehebka, Aida's best friend.
"It's like a co-starring role," she says, one that allows for a couple of featured dance moments.
She also serves as the understudy for Aida (Paulette Ivory).
Miss Ellis hopes she will fill in for Miss Ivory at least once during the show's D.C. run. She says a battalion of her former teachers, friends and family, including her father, a gospel singer and assistant principal at Patricia Robert Harris Educational Center in Southeast, will be on hand to cheer her on.
"They've never seen me in this type of role before," she says.
Miss Ellis, who was born at the Columbia Hospital for Women in Northwest and raised in nearby Fort Washington, credits her time at Duke Ellington for forging her career.
"They saw how gifted I was and my passion," Miss Ellis says. As a young girl, though, she was not sure about pursuing drama professionally.
"At 14, that's when I really was starting to get serious," she says. "I wanted to take it to whatever place it would take me."
At the Georgetown school, "I had the opportunity not to just do dance shows, but musical theater and acting," she says. "They got me so much exposure in the D.C. area."
She kept up her performing schedule during her teenage years, even during down times. She spent two summers at the Ailey School in New York City.
Miss Ellis says her D.C. swing for "Aida" will be her last with the company. She plans to return to New York to spit-shine her singing career.
"I grew up on so many different kinds of music," Miss Ellis says. "My style is soul, plain soul."
For now, her remaining days in "Aida" have her undivided attention.
Preparing to play Aida has been more than just another rung in her theatrical education. It has been an experience that enhanced her personal life.
"She's a leader, she's a princess and she has to step up to the plate so many times to prove it," she says of the title character. "[She does not] back down from what she's feeling in her heart."
"It's taught me courage, how to love myself," she says. "I went through a breakup while learning the role …. It's OK for things like that to happen. It's a part of life."
"I get to take the lessons home with me," she says. "It's a role like no other."

WHAT: Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
Tuesday through Aug. 18. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and Aug. 15. No evening performance Aug. 18.
$20 to $79
PHONE: 202/467-4600

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