Minus the original multimillion-dollar accoutrements, and with a tighter focus on the intriguing love story, Fullerton Civic Light Opera's tasteful staging of this Elton John–Tim Rice musical is a pleasant surprise. The plastic assembly-line veneer that marred the original Disney Theatricals show on Broadway has been replaced in this first locally-produced Southern California staging with heartfelt performances, a fine supporting ensemble, and the thoughtful, graceful direction and choreography of Sha Newman. This still isn't a first-rate tuner: The kitschy score is derivative and bland, never more than mildly entertaining. But FCLO parlays the property into something far more palatable than it was in its premiere run.
Loosely based on the classic Verdi opera of the same name, the book (Linda Wolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang) recounts the fable of forbidden love between Aida (Jamila Ajibade), who is the enslaved princess of Nubia, and the morally conflicted Radames (Chris Warren Gilbert), captain of the Egyptian fleet. Though Radames is betrothed to the Egyptian princess Amneris (Kelli Thacker), he falls in love with captive beauty Aida, whom he doesn't know is the daughter of the king of Nubia, also being hunted down by the Egyptian forces. Complications lead to death for the love-struck couple. Think Romeo and Juliet set in ancient Egypt.
What keeps this predictable narrative engrossing are the splendidly acted and superbly sung lead performances of Gilbert and Ajibade, as well as the yeoman efforts of a well-cast ensemble. Ajibade imbues Aida with the perfect balance of likeability and bravery, never lapsing into the maudlin or stereotypical. She's a bona fide human being in the midst of a formulaic romantic tragedy. Gilbert also achieves strong empathy as the somewhat ignoble warrior-with-a-conscience. He's a hunky hero with substance, not just a stick figure singing gooey ballads. Randy Gianetti is properly hissable as Radames' vile, ambitious father, and Thacker sings charmingly and is captivating as the caring if materialistic bride-to-be. In smaller roles, there is fine work from Allen Christopher, Richard Clave, Staci Wilson, and Allan Louis.
Jim Guenther's sets are atmospheric and appealing, and Sharell Martin's costumes have a pleasingly subdued opulence. Both are enhanced by Christina Munich's evocative lighting. Music director–conductor Lee Kreter leads a superb orchestra. This is a show that's about destiny, mysticism, and the afterlife, so it's heartening to discover that a crass, cartoonlike commodity can transcend its mummified origins.