Bailiwick Chicago gives Elton John’s ‘Aida’ a powerful, intimate staging

Brandon Chandler and Rashada Dawan each live “Elaborate Lives” in Elton John and Tim Rice’s ‘Aida.’

Bailiwick is back. After disappearing a few years ago, this iconic Chicago company has reinvented itself and arrived in full force, with two full-bodied shows currently playing in town: F**ing Men at Stage 773 (read my review here), and now Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida at American Theatre Company’s space.

For those not familiar with the Verdi opera on which this rock musical is based, I’ll turn to the press notes to summarize: “Aida tells the story of a high-ranking Egyptian soldier, engaged to the Pharaoh’s daughter and next in line for the throne, who falls in love with the Nubian slave Aida. When he discovers that she is the daughter of the King of Nubia, each is forced to choose between love for country and love for each other.”

Directed by Scott Ferguson, this beautifully intimate production — the first professional resident company production in Chicago — focuses on the ill-fated relationship between Radames (the Egyptian soldier) and Aida.

Brandon Chandler as Radames has a voice of gold, easily navigating Elton’s vocally-demanding rock score. And in the title role, Rashada Dawan is a formidable presence, filled with fire and passion. Your eyes are drawn to her in every scene (as much as her understudy, in the chorus, attempts to pull focus. Seriously: my theatre companion, Jamie, and I were both completely distracted by her). As Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, Adrianna Parson gives a touching performance that evolves from self-absorbed fashion plate to sobered leader, but she could benefit from turning up the volume on her big numbers.

There are a few moments that could be brushed up to make this show really shine, namely the clunky scenes in “the Egyptian wing of a modern museum” that open and close the show. Also, Elton John’s score is uneven — the two numbers Radames’ father sings are entirely forgettable, while Aida’s big numbers are spine-tinglers. I also wanted more opportunities to showcase the vocally strong chorus. When they do get a moment at the end of the first act to sing as one, it nearly brings down the house. (Music direction by Robert Ollis and Jimmy Morehead is first-rate, as is the band of six. ) More of that, please.

Overall, this is a wonderfully satisfying effort from the new Bailiwick Chicago. I recommend it.

(Also: Read my friend Jamie’s thoughts on the show. She was an interesting take on things, pointing out some of the story’s weaknesses — which I mostly agree with.)

“Aida,” presented by Bailiwick Chicago, plays at the American Theatre Company’s space, located at 1909 W. Byron, through August 1. More information here >

6 thoughts on “Bailiwick Chicago gives Elton John’s ‘Aida’ a powerful, intimate staging

  1. I love Aida, saw it with Heather Headley and Sherie Rene Scott way back when. The score is amazing, and this production, judging from your review and that picture, looks pretty fine.

    1. Hi; thanks for commenting! Never saw the original production, but have the cast recording. Headley and Scott are amazing in it.

  2. Hey Bob — so glad you enjoyed the show! I’m very proud of all my colleagues who worked on this production! One small note: although Robert Ollis conducts the show, he shares musical direction credit with Jimmy Morehead (who is especially responsible for those choral vocals you and I are so in love with at the end of Act One!)

    Hope to see you around soon!

    1. Hi, Christopher! Thanks for the correction, which I’ve amended above. See you around soon, I’m sure!

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