More often than not, our area's musicals are graced by terrific voices. But every once in a while, a performer will come along whose vocal gifts and interpretive skills positively knock you out, causing you to silently mouth one word at your theatergoing companion: "Damn." The Quad City Music Guild's current production of the Disney musical Aida, directed by Bill Marsoun, doesn't have one of those performers. It has two.
As the title character, a Nubian princess enslaved by the Egyptian warrior - and her eventual lover - Radames (Tyson Danner), Allyson Peniston makes her first entrance with hunched shoulders and a downward gaze, and her line readings are suffused with resentment and a strange kind of pity; the weight of Aida's experiences fully registers even before she starts to sing. But when she does, Peniston's performance transforms from formidable to magical.
Peniston's lower register is rich and suggestive, and her sustained high notes have an expressive beauty, yet it's the passion behind the range that gives her portrayal its heft. When Aida's fellow Nubians are threatened, or when she aches with longing for Radames, Peniston's power is overwhelming, and she's a subtle enough performer to let her performance build; her first solo, "The Past Is Another Land," exquisitely sets the stage for later triumphs. By the time the actress hits her money notes in "The Gods Love Nubia," the impact of her vocal and emotional progression is staggering. And that's just the end of Act I.
Playing Radames' haughty fiancée, Amneris, Angela Cavallo isn't privy to the richness of material granted to Aida. In a show filled with intentional, Disneyfied anachronisms, the character of Amneris may be the most glaring one; the show's book writers - Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang - and composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice have fashioned her as a comically spoiled Egyptian Valley Girl. (The jokey Amneris, like much of Aida, is a bone thrown to younger audience members - musicals about slavery can be, like, so totally boring.)
Cavallo, though, plays this conception to the hilt. With a vibrant pop-rock voice that can turn lyrical on a dime, Cavallo displays vocal and comedic prowess. She's effortlessly funny, even when saddled with obvious gags, and the Amneris number that could easily be throwaway - "My Strongest Suit," which is basically an excuse for a gaudy fashion show - becomes, with Cavallo in the role, a show-stopper. Yet she's also touchingly sincere, and in her Act II solo, "I Know the Truth" - sung when Amneris learns of her intended's deception - Cavallo is quietly heartbreaking. She plays the role with more variety than it deserves.
Both Peniston and Cavallo are more than enough reason to catch this Aida, but there's plenty of reason beyond their contributions. The show is sung tremendously well by the Music Guild ensemble, whose blend is spectacular (special props to sound designer Sean McGinn), and the orchestra, under the direction of Gregg Neuleib, plays with inspiring skill. Cindy Fargo's costumes are wonderfully theatrical creations, and while Aida is light on memorable supporting characters, Kevin Snell reveals a lovely high tenor, Sarah Ulloa provides some powerhouse vocals, and Tom Vaccaro gives welcome, boisterous energy to his musical numbers, even though Aida fashions his character as a stereotypical Disney heavy, a doppelgänger of Aladdin's villainous Jafar.
Music Guild's production of Aida is so close to great that it's tempting to be generous and just say that it is great. But while the show is a lavish, large-scale production, it's also a simplistic, morally unambiguous one. Aida feels a bit like the stage equivalent of James Cameron's Titanic - it relies too heavily on easy contrivances (the lip locks between Aida and Radames are continually, predictably interrupted by third parties) and even easier punchlines, and its issues of class, race, and power are only blithely addressed, mere footnotes to Aida's swoony tragic romance. (Like Cameron's Jack and Rose, Aida's and Radames' Hearts Will Go On.)
Yet this conception may have worked had Tyson Danner displayed the fire that his female co-stars do. Sadly, though, Danner (at least during Thursday night's preview) seemed distractingly self-conscious. You can sense him striving for passion - generally with eyes shut and fists clenched - but his stiff line readings and vaguely unfocused presence give him away; right now, he's making a third of the show's focal love triangle not work. The performer isn't so weak that he sullies the thoroughly enjoyable experience of Music Guild's Aida, but if he can't match the skill of the show's leading ladies, Danner - who has a great look and sings quite capably - should at least try to match their confidence. Radames' first solo in Aida is entitled "Fortune Favors the Brave." Danner should take that truism to heart.
For tickets, call (309)762-6610.