REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES-- The whirring sound you hear these days is Giuseppe Verdi
spinning in his grave as he asks himself, over and over again, "what have they done to my opera?"

The "they" in this case is Disney Theatrical Productions. Carrying on in the company tradition of dumbing down just about whatever it touches, Disney has taken Verdi's opera and given it the kitsch treatment, replacing the original's divine music and arias with the earthbound efforts of Elton John and Tim Rice, the same duo responsible for The Lion King's equally banal score.

In Disney's defense, it must be pointed out that the new Aida was only
"suggested by the opera"--and that The Lion King has been an international success, ringing up tens of millions of dollars of profits in Los Angeles alone, where the Pantages' run still continues. Aida hasn't done badly either, winning four Tony Awards during its New York outing, a success which has spawned the road company now ensconced at the Ahmanson theatre through Jan. 5.

The new Aida may pale in comparison to the original, but that doesn't
mean it doesn't have its moments. Simone, who plays the African princess
taken into captivity by the white-bread Egyptians, is a dynamic actress
and singer (as befits the daughter of Nina Simone). Her fiery stage presence and way with a song are proof that mediocrity can be trumped by talent.

Her co-star Patrick Cassidy (from another famous showbiz family) isn't
her equal as a performer, but neither is he a dud. He comports himself
credibly as Radames, the general who returns from the wars a conquering
hero and falls in love with slave-girl Aidia, much to the dismay of his
overbearing father (Neal Benari), who wants him to marry the high-born
white girl (Amneris, played by the spunky Kelli Fournier) he's picked
out for him.
Fournier has been given two comic songs to sing and she makes the most
of them. Benari, who has the strongest, most operatic voice in the
show, must make do with only one solo--"Another Pyramid"--but he
delivers it with ringing tones.

Aida tries hard to be politically correct in its treatment of black/white relationships and in the way Radames is made to feel guilt for all the blood he's spilled in battle. Despite these good intentions, the show still comes off as synthetic and shallow. Not so the decor and costumes, though. The work of Bob Crowley, they deliver one breathtaking image after another. Too bad the same can't be said for the music and lyrics.

(Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 628-2772)