One of the standout theatrical pleasures in the Greater Utica area last year was Utica Dance’s Nutcracker, with music by the Hamilton College Orchestra. It seemed too much to hope that the same orchestra might provide music for Dance’s production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA; alas, the pit was empty. Still, the voices were superbly live: Ciara Wiggins and Casey Rice led an ensemble that consistently delighted the audience. The show was extremely well sung.
In his NY Times review of the original, Ben Brantley described AIDA as “the new Disney cartoon pretending to be a Broadway musical.” That’s about right, and I can only imagine the version we saw, billed as the “School Edition,” exacerbated the effect. The plot and alternately campy/melodramatic dialogue seemed to demand wacky animated animals voiced by vaguely familiar stars – there wasn’t much for our performers to work with.
But when they sang… Wiggins played an incredible Aida, princess-turned-slave. I had no difficulty believing Rice’s Radames would fall head over heels for her – her regal bearing was projected in every (seemingly) effortless note. Rice channeled Elton John – his voice was well suited to the pop/rock style of his songs, which he embellished with occasional growls and fillips. Alexandria Corn played Amneris, the “other” princess; in addition to nailing her songs, she managed the difficult feat of engaging audience sympathy for her character, written as a selfish, sarcastic third wheel. Rounding out the trio of principals were Samuel Cotrupe, Zach Robison, Stephen Carr, Mary Dziekowicz, and Kevin Curtis – not a weak link in the bunch, an enviable company.
I might have wished for more dancing on the large stage, especially given that Trevor Jones and Lindsey LaFountain choreographed (I’ve seen a few of Jones’ other pieces – his choreography is striking and inventive.) They managed one extended number near the end of the first act, bold and energetic, which left us wanting much more. The rest was just bits here and there – dramatic movement, snippets of dances. Another thing I’m not sure was a problem – Jones is a very good dancer, and he draws the eye. He led most of the numbers, which seemed unusual for a show billed as a school production. It might have been good experience for the other dancers on stage to follow him, but it might have been better to let them shine for themselves.
The set and costumes were very good – not elaborate, but set off well against the white backdrop, brilliantly colored for many scenes. Rob Piperata’s lighting was nice, with occasional dramatic flourishes that were more powerful for being infrequently called upon; he also scored some perfect fades. Matt Wagner’s sound was clear and well balanced. It should be noted that Rob and Matt have done a nice job making Mohawk Valley Community College a turnkey place to put on a show – for the most part you can walk in the door and they’ll take very good care of you with solid technical support that highlights the performance.
Finally, I was left wondering why Utica Dance was performing a school edition in the first place. The company seemed more than capable of handling the unaltered full version, especially since the leads appeared to be post-high school. Don’t misunderstand – this was an enjoyable, in many ways wonderful production. I look forward to the company’s next announced production, Footloose, scheduled for November 2015. I plan to be in the audience, and I hope they swing for the fences.