Cupertino’s voices soar in a sensibly done Aida

“Subtle” would not exactly be the word to describe anything involving Elton John. From his fashion, to his public persona, and of course his music, his name is synonymous with sequined costume pieces and copious use of piano glissandos which seem to stretch on forever. His stylistic mark is so indelibly set into the fabric of Aida that even a casual musical theatre fan would probably catch the trademark pounding piano which Sir Elton made famous. So, it goes without saying that a show with such a pedigree should be mindful of sounding good first and foremost, but there is a story to be had amidst the thundering tympanis, soaring strings and brazen vocal arrangements. Cupertino High School’s theatre wing (dubbed Cupertino Actor’s Theatre) has taken the bold risk of mounting this student-selected show, but has produced a piece with a powerful sound and some memorable character work.

Garvey and Lee as Aida and Radmes
Set in ancient Egypt, the story chronicles the forbidden love shared by Radames (Francis Lee), a young Egyptian army captain, and Aida (Amy Garvey), a captured Nubian princess. From the first notes, it is obvious that Lee is channeling his inner Adam Pascal (who originated the role on Broadway), attacking the songs with a rock and roll swagger instead of a more metered musical theatre delivery. The power of the young captain seemed to come out much more as the first act got into a rhythm, only to see him be matched by the steely gaze of Garvey's Aida. Her first sung line (“You know nothing about me”) epitomizes the energy of the character both in the text and her delivery, and Garvey portrays a woman with the world on her shoulders through powerful vocals and a strong physical presence even in the face of those who hold a sword against her and her people. In particular, her rendition of “Dance Of The Robe” is vocally gutsy and very impressive.

Not to be outdone in the realm of memorable voices were Nehebka (Yeana Lee) and Mereb (Jamin Shih). Lee’s vocal features throughout the show were a definite highlight as she hit the back wall with her voice before the microphone even needed to help. Shih also found touching moments of vocal/lyrical synergy during “How I Know You”.

The fun in this show comes from a powerful one-two punch in the form the Egyptian princess/fashionista, Amneris (Jackie Breuer) and the plotting yet humorously lascivious Chief Minister (and father to Radames), Zoser (Kapil Talwalkar). Breuer’s energy and vocal talents are on full display during the Motown flavored “My Strongest Suit”, but it’s her more introspective moments which really command the audience's attention. “Not Me” is a great example of this, taking what could be a throwaway role for a vocally gifted comedienne and turning it into a character with a real journey.

When asked about tackling a piece of text with such an assertive dialogue on love and war with young actors, director Arcadia Conrad replied that “it was simply a matter of teaching the students their purpose as actors. We worked with the concepts of emotional recall so that we could find something real, but used it in a realm that is very safe. I really want my actors to feel safe in rehearsals, emotionally safe so that they can take the kind of risks that they need to so that they can create dynamic characters.”

Also impressive in the show is the cohesive and vocally powerful ensemble under the vocal direction of Joanne Barczi. Tight harmonies and clean rhythms are to be expected, especially in a rock musical like this, but there was also a striking amount of balance to the overall sound. Aural balance was also notable in the sizeable orchestra. Despite spilling into the front rows of the house, the thirteen-piece pit was amazingly dynamic and very conscious of its power. Special kudos to percussionist Alyssa Williams who ran between tympanis, congas, cymbals, a mark tree, and who knows what else but not once was her work anything but what it should have been; another layer of sound in a very lavish score. In fact, the only moment in the show that was musically too loud was the preshow music playing over the sound system.

With lots of ear candy, a tight ensemble and some definite names to remember, Cupertino’s Aida is a show that will catch you by surprise. After all, how many other rock musicals set in ancient Egypt can you name?

Cupertino Actor’s Theatre presents – Aida
10100 Finch Avenue
Cupertino, CA 95014
March 26, April 1,2 at 7pm
Tickets at the door: $8 Students/Seniors, $10 General Admission
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