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March 17, 2010 > Theatre Preview: "Aida" sparkles at Irvington

Theatre Preview: "Aida" sparkles at Irvington

By Jay Coleman
Photos By Felicia Ong

Everybody knows "The Lion King," the 1994 movie that won an Oscar for best musical score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. In fact, just try saying, "The Lion King" without humming "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," the "Circle of Life" or "Hakuna Matata."

Far fewer people know that John and Rice teamed up six years later on the soft-rock musical "Aida" adapted from Giuseppe Verdi's majestic opera of the same name and their Broadway musical won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Score. Although "Aida" doesn't boast any blockbuster hits like the songwriting team's earlier collaboration, it still brings an eclectic collection of 18 songs that range in style from reggae and Motown to pop and gospel.

Irvington High School's Center for the Creative Arts, in conjunction with Ohlone College, brings "Aida" to life through March 27, featuring three incredible voices in the leading roles and a strong ensemble cast and chorus - Irvington's finest musical in many years.

"Aida" is a classic love story set in ancient Egypt pitting star-crossed lovers in a struggle against palace intrigue, treason, conflicting loyalties and cultural differences that threaten to separate them forever. The production opens in a modern-day museum where statues come alive to unfold the story. Radames (James M. Jones), an Egyptian army captain, is leading his men through the land of Nubia, Egypt's fierce rival, when the men capture a group of Nubian women. Radames is smitten by Aida (Katherine Dela Cruz), a rebellious young woman. Instead of banishing the women to the copper mines, he assigns them to be palace groundskeepers, and makes Aida a handmaiden to his betrothed, Princess Amneris (Allison D'Ambrosio).

Radames is in line to become Pharaoh, which may happen sooner than expected because Radames' father, Chief Minister Zoser (Trevor Meyer), is secretly poisoning the Pharaoh (Danny Carpenter), Amneris' father. The plot thickens as Radames falls more deeply in love with Aida and less so with Amneris to whom he has been engaged for nine years. The Elton John/Tim Rice score propels the story with powerful, poignant songs that give its three main characters spotlights in which to shine.

Dela Cruz, in the title role, uses her amazing voice and vocal range to handle delicate love songs, including "The Past Is another Land" and anguished ballads such as "Dance of the Robe" with equal grace. A highlight is when she teams with Jones on "Written in the Stars" - the closest thing to a signature song from "Aida." She also glows in the gospel-inspired "The Gods Love Nubia," which ends Act I on a high note. Irvington regulars will remember Dela Cruz as Sandy from last year's production of "Grease," in which she mesmerized audiences with her voice.

Jones barely finished his lead role in Starstruck Theatre's production of "The Music Man" in January when he was back onstage at Irvington as Radames. As strong an actor as he is a singer, Jones soars in duets with Dela Cruz on "The Past Is another Land" and "Written in the Stars," and takes center stage for solos on "Fortune Favors the Brave" and "Elaborate Lives." He registers a powerful performance after lighter roles in "Grease" (Johnny Casino/Teen Angel) at Irvington and "Wizard of Oz" (Scarecrow) for Starstruck a year ago.

Perhaps the surprise of "Aida" is the breakthrough role for Irvington veteran D'Ambrosio as Amneris. A gifted dancer and actress, she demonstrates a hidden talent as a dynamic vocalist who holds her own with Dela Cruz and Jones. D'Ambrosio has great comedic timing, and she provides laugh-out-loud moments - virtually the only light moments in "Aida" - as the self-absorbed Princess Amneris. "My Strongest Suit" is a fun Motown-like number in which D'Ambrosio and several female soloists light up the stage. She has shown her versatility in previous Irvington shows, including "Grease" (playing Cha Cha Digregorio) and "The Hobbit" (Bilbo Baggins).

Dominic Hernandez, who plays Radames' Nubian servant Mereb, also blends solid acting and vocals, especially in "How I Know You," a duet with Dela Cruz, and "Not Me," where he, Dela Cruz, Jones and D'Ambrosio converge in beautiful harmony. He serves an integral role in scenes with Dela Cruz, Jones and Kevin MacPherson, who plays Amonasaro, Aida's father. All seven principle character roles are graduating seniors, and they leave a nice legacy on the Irvington stage.

This is one of the strongest Irvington vocal and acting casts from top to bottom in recent memory, a tribute to long-time Director Linda Jackson-Whitmore and the vocal direction of Daina Joly. Lauren Benjamin's choreography keeps the action moving throughout, and her signature hip hop style is clearly evident in the reggae-style number "Another Pyramid." Set designers Fred Alim and Beth Zeigler creatively transformed the Valhalla Theatre into a striking museum and ancient Egypt, and keep the 15-person production crew hopping with several set and light changes.

Costume designers Elizabeth Whitaker and Evan Boomer met the challenge of clothing 42 actors/dancers/chorus in a broad range of wardrobe styles, from muted, desert colors for slaves and soldiers to brilliant, opulent colors for the palace royalty. Central to the production is the 22-person pit orchestra, under the direction of Irvington music teacher Charlie Rodda, which brings the Elton John/Tim Rice score to life.

Every high school in Fremont is represented in the Fremont Unified School District Arts Magnet production of "Aida," so it's truly a city-wide event.

"Aida" may never replace "The Lion King" as Elton John and Tim Rice's crowning achievement, but it's still a jewel of a production in the right hands. And this jewel sparkles!

For more information or to order tickets call (510) 656-5711 x46423 or visit

Now through March 27
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
March 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 (March 25 half price night)
7:30 p.m.

Sunday Matinee
March 21
2:00 p.m.

Irvington High School
Valhalla Theatre
41800 Blacow Road, Fremont
$15/General reserved, $12/Seniors and children 12 and under, $10/students w/ASB cards (sold at door.)
(510) 656-5711 x46423

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