By Leslie D. Rose
As the house lights of the Manship Theatre faded and the curtain rose, an audience was teleported to the Egyptian section of a modern museum. Among museum visitors, an elaborate tomb, and a man and woman who are near magnetically drawn to each other – a woman pharaoh statuette comes to life. Transporting the visitors and the audience to ancient Egypt, she tells the story of “Aida” which explains the connection of the modern day man and woman at the museum.
Produced by New Venture Theatre (NVT), the timeless love story of Elton John & Tim Rice’s “Aida” felt right at home in Baton Rouge. The multi-award winning production is of the largest ever produced by NVT and what founding artistic director Greg Williams, Jr. said is his theatre company’s biggest production in stepping out and doing something different.
Breakout supporting actor Toi Bonnet played Nubian slave Mereb. Bonnet is a triple threat actor in that he also sings and dances, but up until auditions for “Aida,” he said he was content with staying in the wings.
“I’m actually always in the ensemble and that’s where I always wanted to be – behind the scenes,” Bonnet said. “I took this chance to go for a part and I’m really loving it.”
Williams said Bonnet was a nervous wreck leading up to the production, but audiences would never have known as the new actor brought the Mereb character to life in such a realistic and endearing way. Bonnet even pulled off a perfect lifeless lay in his death scene to be dragged across the stage for his removal from the set.
Another breakout star is Angel Bailey in her first leading role as Aida. Bailey has done extra work for films such as “21 Jumpstreet” and supporting roles in NVT Productions like “Little Shop of Horrors,” where she was an urchin, but until “Aida,” Bailey said she didn’t know her theatrical strength.
“I take this as a learning experience,” Bailey said. “It was such a challenge and a bit stressful.”
The challenge: learning to sing correctly. Bailey said she has been singing the wrong way for many years. Through “Aida” under direction from Loneka Wilkinson Battiste and Lindsey Roy, Bailey was introduced to head singing, which is using your nose to push the melodies along for a softer sound versus using the diaphragm to belt out the notes.
“I had to practice singing how I was taught to do it every day – singing out of my head voice,” she continued. “I couldn’t take any breaks or days off from my practice.”
Overall the singing in the production was amazing and the various duets and even trios were so well rehearsed and choreographed to the point of flawlessness. But acting and singing aside, a few other show stealers were lighting, set design and costuming.
The set, technically and aesthetically designed by Brandon Lewis and Kelly Latchie gave way to making the audience truly feel teleported to ancient Egypt. The lighting was a show in itself with a variety of blacked out areas and spotlights, silkscreen light show and even a prison bar design laid on the stage to show that a character had been imprisoned.
Williams said he studied lots of 1960’s film depictions of Egypt and Googled everything possible to come up with the idea to do lots of flow styled Grecian dresses that featured roping.
“We wanted to kind of take it out of a specific time frame to make it relevant to today,” Williams said.
As far as changes to the original script, Williams made a few – the biggest he noted was to place more emphasis on the love story and less on the spectacle portion of the production.
“We still had a lot of spectacle in it, but the original version had so much spectacle that it overpowered the story,” he said. “As far as the lyrics, this production is the best of the best – every song is poetry, and I just wanted to revamp and spotlight that.”