ACMO enchants audiences with ‘Aida’

Katie Pryor
Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor

Earlier this year, Seth Sponhouse, an executive board member and student director for Millersville University’s All-Campus Musical Organization, expressed that he wanted to bring something that people would never expect from a student-run theatre organization. For their spring musical, ACMO transported audiences to ancient Egypt with “Aida,” which ran from March 27-30 in the Winter Center.

“Aida”, or also known as “Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida”, is based on Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian-language opera by the same name, but was updated and remade into a musical produced by Walt Disney Theatrical with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. It ran on Broadway from 2000 to 2004 and found continued success with two national US tours and performances in 20 different countries. It was nominated for five Tony Awards and won four in 2000, including Best Musical Score and Best Performance by a Leading Actress.

Aida (Cara Clase) and Radames (Dylan Fry) share a romantic moment during the song “Elaborate Lives”.
Aida (Cara Clase) and Radames (Dylan Fry) share a romantic moment during the song “Elaborate Lives”.

Although the show opens in modern day in an Egyptian exhibit in a museum, it then goes back several millennials to ancient Egypt, where captain of the Egyptian guard, Radames (Dylan Fry), and his men have returned from an expedition through Nubia and have captured a group of Nubian women. One of the women, Aida (Cara Clase), who is actually the princess of Nubia, defies the captain and his men, stating that while Egypt may take everything away from the Nubians, they will never take away their spirit. Captivated by her actions, Radames saves her companions from slavery in the copper fields and has Aida serve as a handmaiden to Amneris (Skye Hewish-Schmid), who is Radames’ betrothed and next in line to be Pharaoh of Egypt. While the two women become close friends, an unexpected, star-crossed love develops between Aida and Radames. Amneris worries as her fiancé suddenly turns distant, Radames feels torn between life as an explorer and as ruler of Egypt, and Aida struggles to keep her noble identity a secret and feels that her love for Radames has betrayed her people. This only intensifies when her father and king of Nubia (Micah Talbot) is captured by the Egyptian army. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Radames, his father, Chief Minister Zoser (Joe Gratz), has been slowly poisoning the current Pharaoh (Christian Kriebel) in order to accelerate Radames’ ascension to the throne.
The show, which was directed by Sponhouse, was a lush and vibrant feast for the eyes. The sets were very well constructed and mostly included pillars and a bridge-like structure painted with Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as tables of artifacts during the prologue and epilogue in the modern-day museum. The backdrops, accompanied by clever use of lighting, could bring intensity to a dramatic scene or even portray an Egyptian sunset, and there was even a backdrop portraying a dark, starry night. These aspects of the set effectively made the audience feel like they were in ancient Egypt, watching a story of war, betrayal and star-crossed romance unfold. The costumes, which were designed by Shelby Feeney, were mostly made up of long, flowing materials, which looked especially gorgeous during song and dance sequences such as “Another Pyramid” with Zoser and his cloaked ministers, “My Strongest Suit” with Amneris and her lovely handmaidens, and “Dance of the Robes” with Aida, Nehebka (Catrine Olibrice) and the other Nubian slaves. Whether it was the dark, mysterious robes of the ministers, the white, loose dresses of the handmaidens, the garments for the slaves or even Amneris’ colorful, glamorous wardrobe, all the costumes were very well-constructed.

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Princess Amneris (Skye Hewish-Schmid, center) and her handmaidens wows the audience as they perform “My Strongest Suit”.
Princess Amneris (Skye Hewish-Schmid, center) and her handmaidens wows the audience as they perform “My Strongest Suit”.

Of course, this is a musical, and with a score conceived by pop music icon Elton John and multi-award-winning lyricist Tim Rice, nothing less than brilliant can be expected. The songs range from many types of genres – “Another Pyramid” has a reggae feel, “My Strongest Suit” has a sassy Motown vibe, “Dance of the Robes” and “Easy as Life” both have a strong African influence, while “Elaborate Lives”, “Written in the Stars”, “Enchantment Passing Through” and “A Step Too Far” are pop songs that are stylistically reminiscent of Elton John’s music. With many genres to cover, the orchestra, which was carefully hidden behind the sets, successfully and effortlessly handled the instrumental nuances of the score, while the cast and ensemble brought the vocal and performance power.

Aida (Cara Clase) and the Nubian slaves perform the show-stopping Act One finale “The Gods Love Nubia”.
Aida (Cara Clase) and the Nubian slaves perform the show-stopping Act One finale “The Gods Love Nubia”.

The cast was flawless in bringing the characters to life. Cara Clase as the dynamic leading lady carried the show with grace, fiery passion and undying determination. She stole all the songs she was featured in with her belting vocals and powerful presence. She also exhibited great chemistry with Dylan Fry as Radames, who was a charismatic performer and a soulful singer. Skye Hewish-Schmid was exuberant yet vulnerable as Princess Amneris, a royal diva who uses her eye for fashion to mask her insecurities. Joey Bertoni was the sly, hilarious comic relief as Mereb, a Nubian slave who learns about Aida’s secret identity, and Joe Gratz was cunning and malicious as the evil Zoser.

Compared to their previous spring musical, “Legally Blonde: The Musical”, “Aida” was a daring departure for ACMO. While “Legally Blonde” is a light-hearted, energetic show that never takes itself too seriously, “Aida” is much more musically and culturally diverse, has a more dramatic and romantic plot, and can even be tragic and heart-breaking at times.

However, Sponhouse stated that they were hoping to outdo themselves with “Aida”, and they pulled that off with spades. With a talented, nuanced cast and production crew, memorable music and a rich, colorful design, ACMO brought a moving, enchanting and all-around entertaining production of “Aida”.
So, will ACMO’s next musical be able to outdo “Aida”? Only time will tell.