“Aida," the new musical from Elton John and Tim Rice, has everything you could want in a big Broadway show. Except warmth, wit, true delight, genuine emotion and memorable songs. The story, which broadly follows that of Verdi's 1871 opera, is an exotic but robust version of the eternal love triangle. Aida, a Nubian princess who was taken to Egypt as a slave, falls for Radames, who is supposed to wed the pharaoh's daughter, Amneris. A great amount of talent is brought to bear on this story, and because of it, "Aida" couldn't fail to be beautifully sung, cleverly staged and ravishing to look at. In the title role, Heather Headley is quite splendid. She has the rare ability to suggest deep feelings with a look, a gesture, a turn of the head. Her movements have a commanding dignity, her voice a range that loops all the way from a roar of rage to a sigh of sorrow. With Sherie Rene Scott giving a classic diva's performance as Amneris and some superb choral work from the ensemble, "Aida" displays the full richness of American theatrical singing. Robert Falls, one of America's finest directors, gives the story a clear, clean shape and makes it glide as smoothly as Rollerblades on glass. Bob Crowley lavishes all his rich invention on the exuberant costumes and all his talent for surprise on the intriguing sets. Add to all of this a composer who has sold 60 million records and a lyricist who has co-written some of the biggest-selling shows in Broadway history, and "Aida" ought to be wonderful. Instead, it's a strangely empty experience. As a fashion show, it works most of the time. As a pop concert, it has its moments. As a piece of theater, it hardly begins to happen. The basic problem is one of tone. "Aida" hovers somewhere between camp extravaganza and historical parable without ever landing firmly on either side. When Sherie Rene Scott's Amneris is introduced with the hilarious "My Strongest Suit," the tone is much more Valley Girl than Valley of the Kings. But even though this burlesque element is never quite shaken off, "Aida" also wants to be taken seriously. The performers playing Egyptians are white. The Nubians are black. The imagery deliberately evokes memories of slavery in America. The doomed love affair between Headley's black princess and Adam Pascal's white conqueror becomes a metaphor for the pain of inhumanity. But this is serious stuff, and it demands much more emotional engagement than Elton John and Tim Rice can muster. There are moments, especially the gospel-driven "The Gods Love Nubia" that closes the first act, that manage to express something of the grief of slavery. But in the midst of the surrounding blandness, they become banal. You can make a gut-wrenching musical about slavery or a pop video of "Walk Like an Egyptian." But you can't do both at the same time. It doesn't help that John's once shining talent for pop melody is now flickering like a candle in the wind, casting only occasional light on the story. Numbers like "The Gods Love Nubia" and the lovely "Elaborate Lives" remind us of his pedigree. But too often, John's inspiration seems to be of the kind to which you just add water and stir. Rice's lyrics are big on competence and short on wit, poetry or passion. In fact, the overall effect of the songs is eerily similar to Rice's last excursion to ancient Egypt, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." That the pop musical hasn't grown in 30 years is the depressing message of "Aida."
As the show moves slickly on, you get the unmistakable feeling that "Aida" is a substitute for what John and Rice really wanted to write. With its tragic princesses torn between love and loyalty, "Aida" seems to be John's way of not writing a musical about his friend, Princess Diana. Unable, perhaps, to face the task of dealing with all of that grief and drama, he went into the Nile.
If only a dazzling set (or two) and a daffy mood (or two) were enough to make a musical! In the first scene, absorbed but chic modern types wander through what looks very much like the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A long-preserved princess steps down from a pedestal and announces that, since "Every Story Is a Love Story," she's here to preside over the bringing together of the reincarnations of two attractive but doomed lovers.
We gaze at an empty chamber and are magically transported back to sometime in Pharaonic Egypt, when passions and fashions ran high.
Off at war, Radames, Egypt's chief conqueror, energetically played and sung by blond Adam Pascal (of "Rent" fame), leads his men in a chipper chorus of "Fortune Favors the Brave."
He finds his raiding party opposed by Nubian princess Aida, sincerely if a bit humorlessly incarnated by the beautiful singing sensation Heather Headley.
She laments that "The Past Is Another Land," but her lovely soprano does not stop her from being bundled off to Egypt to serve as slave to the Egyptian princess Amneris (the re-animated mummy in the museum).
Amneris is a stitch as gleefully impersonated by Sherie René Scott, a petulant princess.
Singing "My Strongest Suit," a delightful comic turn, Scott and her court deliver a fashion show that rhymes "finest" with "divinest" and climaxes with the appearance of Amneris in a cat-themed outfit.
Nothing if not clothes-hip, Amneris gasps, "A slave who knows her fabrics, I'm keeping her," when the newly arrived Aida makes a fashion suggestion.
Though insanely devoted to the latest in clothes, Amneris has been engaged to Radames for nine years and yearns to be married.
Alas for her, Radames falls heavily for the prisoner Aida, and the two get the big tragic love ballad, "Elaborate Lives."
But Aida also has to lead her people out of slavery (sort of a female Moses), as we learn in the abysmal political hymn, "The Gods Love Nubia."
This "Aida" has generic music by Elton John, occasionally funny lyrics by Tim Rice, and a book, "suggested by the opera" but unable to find its feet, by Linda Woolverton, David Henry Hwang and Robert Falls.
Falls also directed the show, which consists mainly of putting whoever is singing center stage, with a spotlight on them; it makes actual opera look subtle and deft.
There's a lot of charmless choral gyrating, dignified with the name of choreography and attributed to Wayne Cilento.
But the master spirit behind what's alive in the show is the scenic and costume designer, Bob Crowley.
It is Crowley who has constructed this neat version of the Met, who has given us an amusing, bright and surreal version of Amneris' closet, who has let loose his sense of primary color upon this dreary world. (He dresses the Egyptian men like extras from "Thief of Baghdad," though it doesn't work.)
Crowley's modernist chic returns at the end, where today's Headley and Pascal find themselves at the Met and mystically drawn to each other in front of the tomb where Aida and Radames were shut up.
This "Aida" achieves allure only in its deliberately comic moments; its tragic and political passages have not been rethought so drastically and suffer by comparison.
Fashion show, yes! Insincere preaching? No thanks.
Pretty much everything that's right about ''Aida,'' the new Disney cartoon pretending to be a Broadway musical, can be summed up in two words: Heather Headley.
Ms. Headley, who last worked as a Disney employee wearing zoological drag in ''The Lion King,'' here sheds fur and claws to assume a woman's part, that of the title role of the Nubian princess in captivity. She wears royalty as if it were a body stocking, right next to the skin, and it's easy to see why the other characters onstage sense that there is something that separates Aida from your run-of-the-mill slave.
She has fire, self-possession and an uncompromising sense of purpose. And although she may have goddesslike attributes, she also gives off a purely human flesh-and-blood intensity. That is more than can be said for anyone or anything around her at the Palace Theater, where ''Aida'' opened last night under the direction of Robert Falls, with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice.
It could be argued that casting Ms. Headley was not in the best interests of ''Aida.'' The move is on a par with inviting Lauren Hutton to your 35th high school reunion and then expecting to look good when she stands next to you in your class picture.
On the other hand, without Ms. Headley there would be nothing for grown-ups to focus on once they get past the visual jolt of the Las Vegas arcade that is passing for ancient Egypt, the work of the eminent set designer Bob Crowley.
Children under 12 may also find sitting through the evening's two and a half hours a chore because the show seems to keep anxiously changing its mind about just to whom it is trying to appeal. Like many Broadway megamusicals today, it has the disconnected, sterile feeling that suggests it has been assembled, piecemeal, by committee.
''Aida,'' which has been through several incarnations starting with a disastrous appearance in Atlanta in 1998, still has not decided what it wants to be. It's not an out-and-out clunker like the stage version of ''Saturday Night Fever.'' But it seems stranded in its own candy-colored limbo, thrashing between childish silliness and civic preachiness, between campy spoof and tragic tear-jerker, between two and three dimensions.
Although it is the first Disney Broadway production (unlike the enduringly successful ''Beauty and the Beast'' and ''The Lion King'') not to be inspired by an animated film, it appears to be waiting for the greater destiny of translation into a cartoon. Actually, trimmed to 80 minutes and re-envisioned by Disney's crack team of animators, it could be a perfectly respectable children's movie -- not like ''The Little Mermaid'' or ''The Lion King,'' but as good at least as ''Aladdin'' or ''Tarzan.''
Just as Disney's version of ''Tarzan'' had a score by Phil Collins that was so generically Phil Collins that it seemed abstract, Mr. John's score for ''Aida'' might have been assembled from a ''make your own Elton John song'' software program. It has all the memory-grabbing adhesiveness of unchewed gum, but it would work fine as background music for enchanting bits of animated whimsy. (You know, singing sphinxes and the like.)
What's more, cartoon creatures can get away with the instant shifts between wisecracking facetiousness and sacrificial nobility demanded of the performers here. They might even get away with some of the flat, dubbed-sounding line readings of the show's ''Perils of Pauline''-style dialogue.
This is all rather confounding given the theatrical pedigrees of several of the show's chief creators. Mr. Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, oversaw the inspired staging of last year's revival of ''Death of a Salesman''; David Henry Hwang, who wrote the book for ''Aida'' with Linda Woolverton and Mr. Falls, is the Tony Award-winning author of ''M. Butterfly.'' Wayne Cilento, the show's choreographer, won a Tony for the Broadway hit ''Tommy.''
Yet the script and lyrics, which rework the myth that inspired Verdi's opera of the same name, feel directly descended from a Disney story conference. Aida herself is close kin to Disney's Pocahontas and to Ariel the mermaid, another spunky, adventurous young woman with a prescient feminist streak and a curious side that gets her into lots of trouble.
Taken captive with a group of her Nubian handmaidens, Aida immediately grabs the eye of the conquering Egyptian captain, Radames (Adam Pascal, of the original ''Rent''), who is reluctantly betrothed to Amneris (Sherie Rene Scott), the daughter of the ailing Pharaoh (Daniel Oreskes). Duty clashes with love, as it does in the world of Verdi, and the outcome is again tragic, unless you believe in reincarnation.
Before the climactic Liebestod (during which, rest assured, no one sings ''Candle in the Wind''), there's time for fun, frolics and carnage. There's even time for a Busby Berkeley-style water ballet (with suspended dancers ''swimming'' behind a scrim in the image of a pool) and a ''Jetsons''-style fashion show in which Amneris's servants parade in Futurist-style Egyptian outfits, designed by Mr. Crowley, that should top every drag queen's must-have list. For those with darker tastes, there are scenes of hope and suffering in the internment camp where bedraggled Nubians await execution.
There are two supporting roles that come straight from the Disney cartoon stock company: the sly, ingratiating and ultimately heroic sidekick, usually represented in Disney films by a cute, small animal like a guppy or a monkey, and the demonic villain.
Damian Perkins plays the sidekick, Mereb, a Nubian slave with a sarcastic streak; John Hickok, looking like Terence Stamp in a punk phase, is the gargoyle villain, Zoser, Radames's father. Neither projects a lot of personality, although Mr. Hickok is especially wooden.
He has also been asked to lead the evening's most unfortunate choreography, in which Zoser and his henchmen do hieroglyphic voguing routines, typical of Mr. Cilento's MTV-style staging here. Mr. Hickok has also been burdened with lines usually spoken by men with black top hats and curled mustaches. (''Can't seem to keep them alive down there,'' he notes blithely, after giving orders that a group of slaves be sent to work in the copper mines.)
The dialogue, by and large, is of the B-movie swashbuckler variety of the 1930's and 40's. (Radames to Aida, when he demands that she scrub his naked torso: ''You are much better with a sword than you are with a sponge.'') There are also instances of the sort of camp declarations more common to Charles Ludlam-ish parodies. (Mereb salaams before Amneris while praising her as ''first in beauty, wisdom and accessories.'')
The more exalted sentiments, about destiny and duty, are reserved for Mr. Rice's rather perfunctory lyrics: ''Nothing is an accident/We are free to have it all/We are what we want to be/It's in ourselves to rise and fall.'' That's the moral of ''Aida,'' that and the reasonable contention that imperialism and slavery are bad.
Mr. Pascal, who emerged as a bona fide matinee idol for the under-20 set (a rare thing on Broadway) in ''Rent,'' looks embarrassed to be wearing all those regal robes and armor here, and his movements and line readings are correspondingly stiff and self-conscious. When he sings, he sounds remarkably like Elton John, which doesn't contribute much to his characterization.
Ms. Scott, who seems to have some spark beneath those towering headdresses, is a sadder casualty. Amneris has been conceived as an insecure, surface-obsessed fashion plate, played in the manner of Tori Spelling on ''Beverly Hills 90210.''
Cheap laughs are milked from her desperate attempts to win Radames's love. (''There's a buck-naked princess lying in bed, calling your name,'' she screams.) And she is asked to sing lyrics like, ''I would rather wear a barrel/Than conservative apparel.'' But she finally turns out to be a monument of political virtue, invested in the cause of world peace. Who, other than Diana, Princess of Wales, could convincingly pull off such a transition?
There is, however, Ms. Headley, and she is simply splendid. She not only has what is called It -- that ineffable, sensual glow -- but also a voice of stunning emotional variety and conviction. Anytime she sings, whether of memories of a lost girlhood or of Aida's reluctance to take on a mantle of power, the show springs into vital life, only to sag into its torpor again when she leaves the stage.
For those who live to follow the trajectories of rising stars, a trip to ''Aida'' may be worthwhile. Everyone else is advised to wait for the cartoon.
You could say that some Egyptian deity or other has smiled on Disney, but that would be to discount the hard work - and the loads of money - that have gone into the striking transformation of the Elton John-Tim Rice musical "Aida" since its world premiere a year and a half ago in Atlanta. In its new, vastly improved incarnation, "Aida" is still not a Broadway musical for the ages - it's not even a Broadway musical for all ages - but it has been transformed from a garish misfire into an extravagantly pretty pop fantasy that's aimed carefully - and cannily - at teenyboppers and teenyboppers-at-heart. The show will delight the kids who swoon over "Dawson's Creek" and spend millions on Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera records. With an advance of $15 million, it will be packing them in for some time to come.
Credit must be given to Hyperion Theatricals toppers Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher for making the tough decision to jettison much of the creative team behind the show's unfortunate debut production at Atlanta's Alliance Theater Co. Credit them, too, for the new, smartly chosen team of director Robert Falls, designer Bob Crowley and book doctor David Henry Hwang.
Together they've scraped away much of the show's tacky, snicker-inducing, pseudo-historical trappings, refashioning it as a jelly bean-colored dream that puts an unabashedly contemporary spin on the fabled story about a love triangle in ancient Egypt. "Aida" now features a prologue and coda set in a sleek art museum that might have been renovated by Ian Schrager, where stars Heather Headley and Adam Pascal flirt wordlessly in front of a big, mysterious oxidized metal box. From here we're swept back to the land of the Pharaohs, where Headley plays the enslaved Nubian princess Aida and Pascal is the Egyptian warrior Radames who's captured her.
Oh, but not really - this is just the bright, historically inaccurate daydream of the period that might pass through the minds of the kids in the museum as they stare at those neat ankhs and amulets. Crowley's gorgeous sets and costumes are very current-looking riffs on pan-Asian themes in Day Glo colors, and they carefully play down the Egytian motifs. Aida wears a cool, form-fitting magenta sheath. The tattooed Radames sports torso-revealing red "Mad Max" warrior garb in one scene, Armani-esque black Nehru jackets a little later.
And sure these attractive youngsters are talking earnestly about the perils of navigating the Nile and "women ravaged and children taken into slavery" (I'm so sure!), but they're singing songs of yearning and frustration that might come right from heavy rotation on VH1, and they're facing a dilemma that's straight from the WB net: one pretty boy caught between two pretty girls.
The resolutely contemporary attitude that now infuses all aspects of the show is a brilliant stroke. It frees up "Aida" to make fun of itself; in Atlanta, the show's wisecracks often fell flat because they weren't as funny as the ludicrous period costumes, the stale choreography, the stilted dialogue. Here, the show's latter-day attitude lets us know it's in on the joke ("I'll say this for you Egyptians," muses Aida, stroking a scarf, "you've got a mean thread count"). Most of the time, that is. When the unavoidable plot is being prodded forward in the heavier book scenes, "Aida" still has many unintentionally silly moments, during which it's best to fixate on the intricate details of Crowley's scenery. (I wonder if I can get nifty hanging lamps like the ones in the show at Crate & Barrel?)
The principal performers do the best they can with the clunkier bits. Indeed, the chief advantage of the sleeker, more idiomatically contemporary frame is that it allows the stars to more clearly project their own charismatic talents, as well as the universal essence of the basic love story.
Even in Atlanta, Headley gave a blazing performance. She's that and more here, a naturally radiant, radiantly natural performer who has a voice of great beauty and variety. The honesty and commitment of her acting go a long way toward making Aida's dilemma moving, even if it's never entirely credible.
Pascal, in frosted blond hair, is a likable, handsome presence, and he sings his many songs in a ruggedly soulful rock voice that's nice to hear.
The show's development has been kindest of all to Sherie Rene Scott, who is no longer required to pretend seriously to be an Egyptian princess. Instead she's a princess of more recent vintage, a self-obsessed Cosmo girl with a fashion fixation, and a very funny one indeed. (Amneris does develop a conscience, though: Told of the Egyptians' conquest of Babylon, this future heiress to the throne squeaks, "How oppressive of us!") A terrific singer with a twangy pop voice, Scott also exuberantly leads the show's splashiest, silliest number, "My Strongest Suit," a girl's love song to her wardrobe that now contains a fully staged runway fashion show -- as in one of those B women's pictures of the '30s (though Crowley's preposterous getups seem more inspired by Diana Ross' creations for "Mahogany").
In general, the score is tuneful, pleasant and nicely varied, though it wisely never strays far from John's piano-rock roots. It does not contain a lot of instantly memorable music, though "Not Me," new to the show, has a light charm and an insinuating melody, and "Elaborate Lives," once the show's title tune, is a particularly appealing anthemic ballad. Rice's lyrics aren't inspired, but many get lost in the power-pop orchestrations anyway. Falls' staging presents most of the numbers as pop concert solos aimed at the audience, a task in which he is aided by Natasha Katz's sculptural use of spotlights. This, too, cleverly focuses the attention on the singers and the songs, and not so much on their dramatic purposes.
Critics will hammer the show for its anachronisms and the contradictions between its breezy, jokey tone and the tragic story it's purporting to tell. The problem stems from the show's conception -- how could it be possible convincingly and sensibly to tell this particular story in the idiom of contemporary pop-rock? Making a musical of "Aida" was perhaps not Elton John's brightest idea.
It wasn't Verdi's either, come to think of it. The story is pretty hard to take seriously in most productions of the opera, too, as anyone who has watched one of today's girth-challenged divas waddle across the Met stage in orange pancake makeup can attest. Just as opera companies everywhere must, Broadway's "Aida" now does the best it can with the difficulties inherent in the material (with the sole exception of Wayne Cilento's musicvideo-derived choreography, which is not much of an improvement on the Atlanta version).
To this end, the production offers a lot of diversions, from Crowley's eye-catching, shape-shifting scenery to the beaming beauty of Headley's smile and Scott's snappy comic delivery. The musical is pure bubble gum, but at least now it's stylishly packaged bubble gum. And whatever else you can say about the substance -- it's totally lacking in nutritional value, it gets stale quickly -- it sure as hell sells.