Elton John and Tim Rice’s award-winning, hot-ticket “Aida” was the very first show that Broadway hopeful Zakiya Young saw when she moved to New York from her Philadelphia hometown.
“I slept on the sidewalk overnight to get a ticket because it was the last performance for Heather Headley,” Young says of the actress who won the 2000 Tony as best actress playing the beautiful Nubian princess in love with a dashing Egyptian general even though he conquers her homeland and enslaves her.
Show creators John and Rice – at Disney’s prodding to create its first adult musical – updated and reimagined with rock and pop music Verdi’s famed 1870 opera, which was originally commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal.
“I got a seat in the second row. She was such a strong character. She was very inspiring. I never figured how much such a show could affect me,” says Young, who got her own shot at playing “Aida” three summers ago at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre after appearing in the original Broadway cast of “The Little Mermaid” and “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.”
Now, Young is coming back to the role a second time to help kick off Music Theatre Wichita’s 44th summer season this Wednesday.
“I love Aida’s strength. I love her sense of duty. Her struggle is very real because she has fallen in love with her captor. She honestly wants to be happy, but she needs to stop floating around on her cloud,” Young says. “I don’t want to say she is in denial, but she is still a slave even though she is in love.”
Coming back to the role a second time, Young says, is a chance to deepen her understanding of the character and what drives her. It’s also allowing her to learn new things about herself as a performer and a person.
“It isn’t easier the second time around. It’s different because I’m different. Toward the end of the (2012) run, I realized I didn’t quite understand her the way I wanted to. I wanted another crack at it. I feel I know her better now,” Young says. “I’m not afraid to go to (emotional) places that made me uncomfortable before because they were too close to my own feelings. I have learned things about myself.”
This production reunites Young with Mark Madama, who directed her in her 2012 production but also directed MTW’s first “Aida” in 2005.
“I like this show because of its simplicity, its directness and its passion,” says Madama, associate theater professor at the University of Michigan who has been guest director here for 27 summers. “The people are so passionate about everything they do, whether choosing to give up their position for love or giving up their life for their people. All the feelings are big and bold.”
Starring with Young are Andrew Samonsky as Radames, the dashing Egyptian general who brings Aida home in bondage, and Kate Loprest as Amneris, the pharaoh’s daughter and Radames’ fiancée, who finds herself on the losing side of a romantic triangle.
Bruce Winant plays Zoser, Radames’ opportunistic, power-hungry father; Raphael Nash Thompson is Amonasro, Nubian king and Aida’s father; and Charles Parker is Pharoah, Amneris’ father. Others include Avery Smith as Mereb, Radames’ gofer, and Christiani Pitts as Nehebka, Aida’s go-between with her people.
Thomas W. Douglas, who is celebrating his 25th year on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, returns for another summer as guest conductor. For “Aida,” he is leading a 15-piece orchestra through an eclectic range of rock, pop, reggae, gospel and a little Motown for such evocative songs as “Every Story is a Love Story,” “Elaborate Lives” and “Written in the Stars.” Andrew Palermo, who choreographed MTW’s first “Aida” in 2005, returns to refresh the dance designs with new attention to African movements and rhythms.
Actor Samonsky describes his Egyptian general as the consummate warrior, much like “American Sniper.”
“The military has been his entire life. What makes him a good soldier doesn’t necessarily make him a good person. He’s been trained to survive. His arrogance makes him successful because he never thought beyond himself,” says Samonsky, a Los Angeles native who has been on Broadway with “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Scandalous” and as Lt. Cable in the acclaimed revival of “South Pacific” (preserved on film for “Live from Lincoln Center” on PBS).
“Aida challenges his world view. He may be her captor, but she is strong-willed and speaks her mind. He has not faced that before. She makes him face consequences he never thought about,” Samonsky says. “He is confused about compassion and how to connect with people.”
For her role as Amneris, Loprest is fascinated by the character’s evolution from pampered, self-centered fashionista and trophy girlfriend into a clear-thinking, responsible leader ready to step into her place in history.
“It’s a really good story arc. She starts as a girl, probably 16 or 18, who never has to do anything for herself. She’s very vain. She floats through life,” says Loprest, a Chicago native who was a member of MTW’s resident company in 2004, playing featured roles in both “West Side Story” and “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” She’s been on Broadway in “First Date,” “Hairspray,” “Xanadu” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” and in the Chicago sit-down company of “Wicked.”
“Early on, her vanity is a problem because she displays a level of not caring. But her curiosity about the world opens her up and leads her to becoming a strong ruler,” Loprest says.
Frequent guest star Winant is relishing his role as the show’s villain because he so rarely gets the chance to be bad. Wichita audiences know him best as hopelessly lovable Tevye of “Fiddler on the Roof” and ever-so-earnest King Arthur of “Spamalot.”
“Zoser is the epitome of evil. He’s power-hungry. He’s opportunistic. He’s uses whoever to do whatever. He’s not above getting his hands dirty, although he prefers to get someone else’s hands dirty,” chuckles Winant, a Broadway veteran (“Chicago,” “Ragtime,” “Miss Saigon”) and frequent TV guest star (“Blue Bloods,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “The West Wing”).
“It’s fun to be the nasty plotter for a change. You could say it’s a guilty pleasure. After being the nice guy in so many shows, it’s great to be able to twirl your mustache for a couple of hours.”
If You Go
What: Elton John and Tim Rice’s 2000 Tony-winning rock reimagining of the classic Egyptian operatic romance kicks off Music Theatre Wichita’s 44th season.
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $64-$28 evenings, $56-$26 matinees; call 316-265-3107