In the musical "Aida" at Karamu House in Cleveland, actress Mary-Francis Miller creates a supreme blend of power and passion as the mythical title character. She commands the stage with her mighty singing, intensely focused acting, beauty and grace in this story about an enslaved Nubian princess who ends up in a love triangle with her Egyptian captor and the Egyptian princess.
It's too bad that her leading man, though, Darelle Hill as Radames, took a while to warm up to his role as the other half of this star-crossed duo in Sunday's performance. The Elton John-Tim Rice show, based on the Verdi opera, opened on Broadway in 2000 and won four Tony awards, including best original score.
For the first act at Karamu House, Cleveland's African-American theater, Hill's acting was lacking in emotional depth. Yes, he's supposed to be a braggadocio warrior. But in the first act, we don't feel he's believably starting to change as Aida begins to open his eyes to the destruction the Egyptians have wrought on the Nubians.
As a result, we feel the wonderful Miller is carrying much of the weight when it comes to their early chemistry. Even when they're singing their first, passionate love duet "Elaborate Lives," he doesn't make much eye contact with her.
When Hill drops the swagger by the second act, we start to see more why Radames is irresistibly drawn to Aida's fearlessness and beauty. By the time the pair sing their "Elaborate Lives" reprise later in their sad story, Hill has hit his stride and we are thoroughly invested in these characters' love.
This show, playing in the newly renovated Jelliffe Theatre and directed by Tony Sias, is beautiful to look at. Inda Blatch-Geib's scenic design is clean, dominated by columns, and T. Paul Lowry has created elegant Egyptian-themed projections on a big screen upstage and on both sides of the proscenium.
Treva Offutt's choreography is basic for this cast. But the choreographer makes cool use of long wooden sticks as Aida finally grabs one and hits it against those of her countrymen and women when she embraces her leadership role with the Nubians.
The powerful Miller's performance is at such a highest level, it feels like she's pulling the rest of the cast along with her in this ambitious show. The overall result is a show that feels semi-professional, at a professional-priced ticket.
Sidney Edwards is beautiful and acts appropriately spoiled as Amneris, the Egyptian princess betrothed to Radames. Her pitch veers dangerously, though, as she opens the Amneris-Radames-Aida trio "A Step Too Far" at the top of the second act, marring this moment where all three reveal they're wracked with self-doubt.
"Aida's" eclectic score is an exciting blend of pop, reggae, gospel, Motown and African-style music. At Karamu, the band's keyboard volume needs to be turned down at points to better hear the vocalists.
Pitch problems exist in the ensemble, too: The male ensemble has woefully off-key harmonies in the early number "Fortune Favors the Brave," which weakens the top of the show.
On the other hand, Joshua McElroy sings beautifully and is an impassioned actor as Radames' Nubian slave Mereb, a smaller, key role that McElroy makes very memorable.
Blatch-Geib's vibrant costumes are one of the best parts of this musical, especially in the glam fashion show during "My Strongest Suit,'' where 10 female cast members make spectacular entrances in African-inspired fashions and audacious hats. It's an amped-up treat to see Karamu totally deliver in its delectable rendition of the Broadway production's original fashion show.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.