The epic Elton John-Tim Rice musical "Aida" is a story of war between Egypt and Nubia that gives birth to a star-crossed love affair between Aida, the captured princess of Nubia, and Radames, the Egyptian captain who enslaved her people.
It's an ancient story told through a rock score and modern sensibility, coming to life with a teen cast in the Akron All-City Musical at the Akron Civic Theatre this weekend.
The eighth annual All-City Musical, which draws high school performers from throughout the Akron area each year, will feature 43 students from 17 schools for three performances Friday and Saturday.
The musical calls for a diverse cast led by the title character, Aida. Director Connor Bogart O'Brien worked to recruit actors of color to portray Aida and her fellow Nubians in this show, whose music features gospel, rock, pop, R&B and Motown.
His search led him to powerhouse singer Kyla Burks from North Royalton to play the challenging title role. O'Brien also enlisted seven additional black performers for the ensemble after visiting an a cappella rehearsal by Akron's Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop (YEPAW).
"If it [Aida] is not done with the proper cast, which is listed in the book with a multicultural cast, I believe that a lot of the story is lost,'' O'Brien said at the University of Akron's Sandefur Theatre, where the cast was rehearsing June 10.
"I know how strong the inner-city gospel communities are here in Akron alone," said O'Brien, who attended a rehearsal of YEPAW's SoulCapella, directed by Kimberly Barnes and aided by her mother, Leslie Parker Barnes. "These kids are so talented but they don't typically come out for All-City.''
Several YEPAW students in the ensemble — Copley High School junior Aaron Smith, and juniors Sierra Sneed and Armani Ponder-Keith of Firestone High School's theater program — said they were happy to have the opportunity to perform in the All-City show for the first time.
Smith said he's gotten used to learning vocal parts more quickly in "Aida" than he has at YEPAW.
"I just think it's cool that we can sing and dance, because I've never been in a play before," he said.
Ponder-Keith, who also sings in choir at Firestone, said, "It kind of was a good opportunity for them to see potential in us and say, 'OK, they're fit for a show and they're mature.' "
Sneed, who had seen two All-City musical productions before, never really knew how to get into one, she said.
"I think it's good to always represent different ethnicities and diversity in shows," Sneed said of "Aida." "They reached out to people who could play those roles."
In this tragic tale, Aida and Radames must choose between following their hearts or leading their people.
"They are giving up everything from their two very different cultures ... for love, no matter what the color of their skin is,'' the director said of the star-crossed lovers.
The Elton John-Tim Rice musical is based on Giuseppe Verdi's 1871 opera of the same name. "Aida" the musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2000, won four Tony awards, including best original score.
"This is a huge, epic Broadway musical,'' director O'Brien said of "Aida," which features huge production numbers, passionate love songs and a glitzy fashion show. "There's nothing small or avant garde about it."
Julia Mullin of Akron said she enjoys her character's arc as Princess Amneris, who evolves from a selfish young woman who only cares about fashion to one whose eyes are opened to the perils in her relationship with her fiance as well as to her pharaoh father's health.
She bonds immediately with Aida, her new handmaid, over their mutual love of fashion. Their relationship grows into a friendship.
"Even after she finds out that she [Aida] and Radames are in love, she treats her with respect,'' Mullin said.
Along the way, the musical contains a splashy ode to fashion in "My Strongest Suit,'' which features all the female cast members (including my daughter Anna) with Amneris. The runway show that happens in the middle of the number will be framed by a wall of high-fashion projections designed by Jonathon Hunter.
"The runway girls are gonna be full Madonna — I'm talking 'Vogue.' Headpieces that almost wanna fall off. I didn't wanna do it small. I wanted to do it very chic and modern,'' O'Brien said. "We're going all out."
The scene will be dominated by a 16-foot, ramp-style runway. The set piece will also serve as a ramp where the Nubians disembark from the slave boat and as a grand table for the Pharaoh.
The four leads in this show — Aida, Radames (David Baldini), Amneris and the evil Zoser (Patrick Sullivan) — are all larger-than-life characters.
"This show is driven with just four characters, and that's why they needed to be extremely powerful,'' O'Brien said.
Burks shines as Aida
After the director's original top choice for Aida from final callbacks ended up being cast at another theater, he widened his search. He found Burks through his friend Steve Willensky, who runs the high school singing contest Shining Star CLE, and asked her to audition.
"She has completely risen to the occasion. She's incredible, and we got so lucky,'' O'Brien said.
Burks, a student at Ohio Virtual Academy, previously performed the title role in "Aida" at Near West Theatre in Cleveland. In her previous characterization, the lessons Aida's father taught her constantly guide her.
Under O'Brien's direction, Burks focuses on Aida hiding her royal identity as a matter of self-preservation, until Radames "cracks her open" and enables her to be her true self, the actress said.
"Aida is a very strong woman who eventually accidentally finds out that she's in love with Radames,'' Burks said.
Her favorite song is "Easy as Life,'' in which Aida reveals how conflicted she feels between her loyalty to her father, the king of Nubia, and the captor whom she loves, Radames.
Actor Baldini said his Capt. Radames has a much shorter character arc than Amneris', thanks to Aida, who sings fiercely to him in "The Past is Another Land" about the destruction he has wrought on her people. As a result, he works to spare the Nubians from certain death working in the Egyptian copper mines.
"His eyes are immediately opened,'' Baldini said.
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.