“Everyone can believe in love.”
So says D.J. Queenan, the director of Aida, the musical stage production being presented by the City of Savannah’s Cultural Arts Theatre. Queenan is explaining the popularity of Elton John and Tim Rice’s hit musical, which opens Friday, July 7, for six shows.
“Finding the vision was really my biggest challenge,” Queenan says. “I’ve never seen the show, and until last February had not even heard the music. All the staging and set design came completely out of my head. That scares the heck out of me.”
Based on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name, Aida is a story of love, loyalty, betrayal and courage. It tells the story of a young Nubian princess, Aida, who is captured during a battle by an Egyptian army captain named Prince Radames.
As a gift, Radames sends Aida to his fiancee, the Egyptian princess Amneris. Unaware of her royal heritage and despite his own engagement to Amneris, Radames begins to fall in love with Aida.
“Aida will appeal to everyone because it’s a story of love, regardless of place and time,” Queenan says. “With beautiful voices, dynamic dancing and a cast that will lift you off your seat, this is a show the entire family will enjoy.”
The musical had its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta on March 27, 2000. The original touring production played in 53 cities and was seen by more than 1.3 million people. The show was nominated for five Tony Awards, and won Best Original Score, Best Actress in a Musical, Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design.
Queenan needed actors who can sing as well as act. “The show was a dream to cast,” he says. “Our main characters just walked in the door. Jeanette Illidge is just amazing, as are Laura Keena and Nick Bushcar.”
Illidge plays Aida, Keena plays Amneris and Bushcar is Radames. “All three were cast for their amazing vocal talent and their accessibility as actors,” Queenan says.
“I like to work with actors who are open to suggestion and love being directed,” he says. “We make the character together. Neither actors nor directors can be islands. It’s a collaborative act.”
The cast is a large one. “We have about 34 in the cast,” Queenan says. “This is the first show I’ve done with a dance ensemble. There are a group of about 10 people in the show who only dance. They are wonderful. We started rehearsing eight weeks before opening night so we could leave a little room for the dancers to learn their numbers.”
Verdi’s Aida is similar to John and Rice’s in that it’s based on the same story and follow the same story line. But that’s the only similarity.
“First of all, (the musical) is in English,” Queenan says. “Also, this production isn’t really a period piece. The opera is all about time and place.
“This play has no real time, and the place is inconsequential,” he says. “It’s a story of love -- that’s it.”
The cast has been working hard to prepare, Queenan says. “I’m thrilled with the work this cast has put forth,” he says.
“Every day, we all seem to fall more and more in love with the piece,” Queenan says. “The music is beautiful and the tale is breathtakingly chilling.”
As musical director, Warren Heilman is providing not just direction but piano accompaniment during rehearsals. “It’s been nothing but fun,” he says.
Heilman has several duties. “I teach the cast all of the songs,” he says. “I assemble the band for the pit. I play piano accompaniment for all auditions and rehearsals.”
The cast is doing an outstanding job in their roles, Heilman says. “They’re fantastically incredible,” he says.
During auditions, Heilman helped select the cast, which can be a difficult job. “In some cases, we had to make hard decisions because we had too many talented people to choose from,” he says. “My job is so easy because they are so talented, especially the main characters.”
Heilman hopes everyone turns out to see Aida. “It would be a mistake to miss this show,” he says. “It’s probably the best musical production I’ve seen in a long time.”
Work is going on behind the scenes as well as on the stage. “We’ve got a great crew,” says stage manager Jin Hi Rand. “They kind of run on their own.”
The production is going to be “amazing,” Rand says. “We have an incredibly talented cast,” she says. “These are the strongest voices I’ve heard in a long time. It’s thrilling and very exciting.
“It’s a love story everyone can relate to,” Rand says. “It has amazing music, voices and choreography. We have a great set of dancers. Everyone in the cast is dancing.”
As Aida, Jeanette Illidge lights up the stage. “I’ve always loved the story,” she says.
Illidge was already familiar with the opera when she encountered the musical version. “When I heard the Broadway version, I fell in love with it,” she says.
A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Illidge will return to SCAD in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in musical theater. After that, she plans to pursue a stage career. She has appeared in several productions, including SCAD’s A Chorus Line and Pirates of Penzance.
“I love to entertain,” Illidge says. “I love singing. I love acting. I thought maybe it would be the best career I could be in.”
To prepare for the role, Illidge has done a lot of reading and thinking. “I’ve tried to feel how it would be to be a princess, to be enslaved,” she says.
Illidge has had seven years of vocal training. The music of Aida is challenging, but she loves it, she says.
An Army brat, Illidge was born in Oklahoma but has lived in several other states since. “My parents were born in the Virgin Islands,” she says.
Her first experience with the theater came at an early age. “When I first saw The Sound of Music, I loved everything about it,” she says.
Theater goers should see Aida because it is unique, Illidge says. “It’s a passionate love story,” she says.
“There’s humor, amazing dancing, the spectacle of theater,” Illidge says. “You’ll have a lot of fun and leave feeling warm and fuzzy.”
Nick Bushkar’s performance as Radames may be his last in Savannah.
“Radames is a young male Egyptian army captain and prince,” Bushkar says. “He has been betrothed to an Egyptian princess for the past nine years.
“At the beginning of the show, he’s an average cocky male who thinks nothing can go wrong,” Bushkar says. “He has everything going his way and he’s carefree. He loves being out at sea and he doesn’t want to get married because he loves exploring.”
Then the young prince meets Aida. “He realizes that what he has isn’t everything,” Bushkar says. “He turns into a real person.”
Bushkar has done considerable research to prepare for the part. “I’ve read a lot about the different characters and about the time period,” he says. “I’m trying to get a feel for what it was really like. But the show isn’t really a period piece. We have to put a modern twist to it.”
A senior at the American Music and Drama Academy in New York City, Bushkar is a veteran of several Savannah productions. His first show was Les Miserables.
“Compared to my friends, I started late in theater,” Bushkar says. “I was a senior at the Savannah Arts Academy.”
But he soon made up for lost time. Bushkar has also been in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Honk, Grease, Into the Woods, The Fantastics, A Christmas Carol and more.
“I’ve been a choir boy my entire life,” Bushkar says. “At Savannah Arts Academy, I met a lot of friends who were really into theater.
“One friend asked me to audition for Les Mis but I turned it down,” he says. “Then I saw it and it just blew me away. Then I really, really wanted to get into it.”
Bushkar was born in Tucson, Ariz., but has lived in Savannah since the age of 2. He had returned home for one last summer before permanently relocating to New York City when he learned of the auditions for Aida.
“My girlfriend told me about the auditions,” he says. “This is one last time and one last show in Savannah. Next fall, I’m moving up there for good.”
After graduation, Bushkar will pursue a career in musical theater. “This is what I want to do,” he says.
In the meantime, Aida makes a perfect farewell.
“The show really is an amazing story and the level of talent is incredible,” he says. “It’s called Aida but the three characters are shown in depth and are very interesting. It will keep you on the edge of your seat. You want to know what will happen next. The entire show is intense.”
Laura Keena says her character, the princess Amneris, also grows during the show. “She’s the Egyptian heiress to the throne who is unwittingly caught up in a love triangle,” Keena says.
“Amneris is a kind of charmingly self-absorbed person,” she says. “She grew up awkward, then bloomed into a radiant girl. She dresses up a lot. She’s flirty. She’s pretty much a diva. She’s got some depth, but it takes a while for her to get that across.”
But when Amneris realizes her fiance is in love with Aida, her perspective on life changes forever. “All of a sudden, there is a huge realization and in an instant, she grows up to be the queen she must be,” Keena says. “By the end, she’s mature and insightful.”
Keena is delighted with the character. “I love Amneris,” she says. “I had a wonderful time and everyone has been very helpful.”
Like Bushkar, Keena plans to make musical theater her career. A student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., she spent the last semester studying in London.
“My mom took me to see Cinderella when I was maybe four,” Keena says. “A couple of years later they started the Leisure Arts summer theater program.”
Both Keena and her younger brother were cast as Lost Boys in Peter Pan.
“Musicals are so much fun,” Keena says. “This one is pop, it’s kitschy, and it’s a truly wonderful love story that stays with you. It has really great acting and great dancing.
“It’s a great summer show to see,” she says. “It’s very heartfelt and makes everyone feel good.”
Queenan hopes all of Savannah will come out to enjoy Aida and other theatrical productions. “Come to the theater,” he says. “It’s our lives on stage.”
Performances of the City of Savannah’s Cultural Art Theatre’s production of Aida are set for July 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 8 p.m. and July 9 and 16 at 3 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, 32 Abercorn St. Tickets are $17 for adults, $12 for seniors and students and are available at the SCAD Box Office, 216 E. Broughton. Tickets also are available by phone at 525-5050 or online at www.scadboxoffice.com.