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Aida at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace | Theater review

The cast is largely compelling in Jim Corti’s revival of the Elton John-Tim Rice musical, but the book’s mixed messages are more glaring than ever.

Photograph: Brett Beiner
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli in Aida at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

This Disney-produced musical, inspired by Verdi’s opera of the same name, feels familiar and yet devoid of a coherent tone. The play is set in ancient Egypt; Aida, a Nubian princess, is captured and made a slave to Radames, a young Egyptian engaged to the princess Amneris. Radames and Aida fall in love; we’re supposed to feel the intensity of this impossible love, but the story-by-committee and the chemistry-free relationship between Zirilli and the lovely Umoh won’t convince the heart or the head.

The show’s strongest moments involve Aida and the hugely talented female ensemble (Donica Lynn stands out as Nehebka). The Nubian struggle to maintain a sense of nationhood and liberty while enslaved is compelling and rich, as in the resounding Act I closer, “The Gods Love Nubia.” However, much of the play strives to please in a superficial way—a materialistic princess sings about accessories; a pharaoh sings about pyramids—and therein lies the disconnect. How deeply, after all, are we meant to think about the basic racial politics at play? Corti isn’t asking us to consider the dehumanizing horror of slavery as we take pleasure in Afrocentric dancing by a chorus of slave girls. And yet, he hasn’t done anything to address these issues.

Just before Radames and Aida declare love to each other, Radames threatens (not subtly) to rape Aida per his right. This is, of course, the reality of slave ownership—and yet the play ignores these nuances as it indulges in the pleasures of this orientalizing joyride, from the “Walk Like an Egyptian” choreography to the endless display of Amneris’s Cleopatra-like wardrobe.

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