‘AIDA’ – Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice

‘AIDA’ – Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang. Co-Directors: Meg Fofonoff and James Tallach; Music Director: Balint Varga; Chorographer: Kira Cowan; Scenic Designer: Anthony R. Phelps; Costume Designer: Stacey Stephens. Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at The Strand Theatre, 543 Columbia Road, Dorchester, through October 26.

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Powered by a trio of outstanding vocal performances, the Fiddlehead Theatre Company has launched its 20th season with a roar, staging the Elton John/Tim Rice musical ‘Aida’ – a production that may be remembered as the musical theater debut of its lead, the multi-talented Ta’Nika Gibson. Ms. Gibson, a classically trained singer, gives a breakthrough performance in this production which grew ever more confident as the opening night show unfolded.

Gibson portrays the title character, Aida, a fiery Nubian princess who has been captured by the Egyptian army and enslaved along with other women from her country. She does not submit quietly to her fate and her defiant nature captures the fancy of Radames (Gene Dante), captain of the Egyptian army. He spares her and the other women from perishing in the copper mines by assigning them light duty in the palace, but makes a gift of Aida to his betrothed, Princess Amneris (Christiani Rodi), daughter of the Pharaoh. Radames will assume the throne when the Pharaoh dies (which he may do a little sooner than planned with the help of his father) if he marries the princess, but Amneris is so superficial (as she demonstrates in the campy girl group song “My Strongest Suit”, a personal ode to her highly developed sense of fashion) that you suspect he will soon fall for the more substantial beauty, Aida. Which of course, he does.

Rodi gives a performance that is initially reminiscent of Madeline Kahn in “Young Frankenstein” with her wildly exaggerated (but very funny) narcissistic behavior, before heartbreak transforms her into a sympathetic three dimensional character. Like Gibson, Rodi is also a gifted vocalist, which she demonstrates in her compelling solo numbers, particularly “I Know the Truth”, when she discovers that Radames loves Aida. Dante is also a powerful singer, and you can almost hear Elton John’s voice coming through on some of the numbers. The score of this show is solid if not spectacular, but there are some standout numbers, especially “The Gods Love Nubia” sung by Aida and the ensemble of Nubian slaves to close out the first act. There are some touching ballads as well, including “Elaborate Lives” (Aida and Radames), “How I Know You” (Aida and Mereb, Radames head servant), and the beautiful “Not Me” (Aida, Radames, Amneris and Mereb).

Based on Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian-language opera of the same name, this a fairly compelling story with a number of intriguing elements, including the political ramifications of this doomed love affair. Like Romeo and Juliet, you know it’s probably not going to end well, but love apparently lives eternally. “Aida” is also a great spectacle, as any production set in ancient Egypt (think ‘Cleopatra’) tends to be. There are elaborate dance numbers, some beautiful costuming, and the scenic design really evokes an old MGM soundstage version of the desert kingdom. The ensemble¬†singing is really terrific, and my only problem with the production came when the orchestra volume occasionally drowned out the lyrics of the songs, (which is a shame, as Tim Rice is a very clever lyricist, as fans of “Jesus Christ Superstar” can attest).

This is a production well worth experiencing, especially for the performance of Gibson, of whom I expect and hope to see more of on Boston’s stages. For more info, go to: http://fiddleheadtheatre.com/