You may have heard of a little show built on the music of Elton John and the lyrics of Tim Rice, name of “The Lion King.’’
But you might not be as familiar with another collaboration between Sir Elton and Sir Tim, name of “Aida.’’
If so, don’t worry. You haven’t missed much.
In a dubious choice, Fiddlehead Theatre Company, the resident company at the Strand Theatre, has opted to make “Aida’’ the curtain-raiser for this season. Though there are a few laudable performances, it’s an erratic production that does little to conceal the fundamental superficiality and mediocrity of this musical about the ill-fated romance between a Nubian princess and an Egyptian military officer in the time of the pharaohs.
Directors James Tallach and Meg Fofonoff don’t find a way around the pervasive problems of “Aida’’: a generic pop-rock score, a ramshackle dramatic structure that feels randomly slapped together, and a tone so uncertain it borders on identity crisis. “Aida’’ is populated with poses – villainous, heroic, romantic, tragic – rather than people. The lurching script (by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang) often disrupts momentum rather than fluidly advancing the story.
How on earth did this show -- which is based on the Verdi opera and premiered on Broadway in 2000, three years after “The Lion King’’ opened – ever win the Tony Award for best original musical score?
That question may rival the Riddle of the Sphinx. As for Fiddlehead’s “Aida,’’ the production does boast several strengths. Springfield native Ta’Nika Gibson, who is possessed of a clear and ringing voice, delivers an impressively poised performance in the title role. As Radames, a captain in the Egyptian army who first captures Aida and is then captivated by her, the reliably charismatic Gene Dante compels your attention.
But they and the rest of the cast – a highly variable group who range from adept to stiff – are waging an uphill battle on several fronts. For one thing, singers are sometimes drowned out by the band. Moreover, the band’s playing even interferes with the audibility of a couple of scenes of dialogue. Granted, hearing the lyrics and dialogue is a mixed blessing at best in this case, but still.
Then there is the Strand’s deep playing space, which presents an additional challenge to the audience, for whom the scenes that take place upstage seem to be happening not just in a distant time but in a distant place. All in all, “Aida’’ lacks the crisp and vibrant flavor of Fiddlehead’s splendid 2012 production at the Strand of “Ragtime: The Musical.’’
While Gibson and Dante do generate some heat as a pair of lovers who are unstoppably drawn to each other despite the life-threatening peril their romance holds for both characters, the actors are consistently hobbled by the material.
Take their duet on “Elaborate Lives,’’ meant as an emotional centerpiece of the show. It’s sung by Gibson and Dante in Act One and then reprised near the end of “Aida,’’ when matters have taken a seriously tragic turn. Yet neither duet grabs us like it should, because the lyrics to “Elaborate Lives’’ sound like they could sung by anyone, anywhere, at any time, lacking both immediacy and specificity, like a tune you might catch while idly flipping across the radio dial.
Little distinguishes the performances by Matthew Eamon Ryan as the scheming father of Radames, David J. Curtis as Aida’s royal father, and Dallyn Vail Bayles as the pharaoh. There are a few bright spots in the supporting cast, though, including Janett “Becky’’ Bass as a Nubian slave named Nehebka, and Terrell Foster-James, a recent Berklee College of Music grad, as Mereb, a servant to Radames. Bass and Gibson lead the ensemble in “The Gods Love Nubia,’’ which delivers a much-needed jolt of electricity to the production and brings Act One to a rousing close.
Christiana Rodi does pretty well with the role of Amneris, the pharaoh’s daughter, considering that she is saddled with some of the script’s dumbest lines. Rodi’s challenge is to create a character out of a caricature. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the burden carried by everyone in the Fiddlehead cast.