Power Steering

It's noteworthy that, in the show's welter of details, we hear very little of the "who whom," as Marx would have called it, of money and power. One of the few clues in that vein is given by Deavere Smith's ultimate interview subject, William Jefferson Clinton himself, quoting an unnamed Republican senator who tells him, "[The press] vote like you but they think like us. . . . You want to use the power of government to improve people's lives. . . . We like it because we have the power." Whatever that may say about the press, it's the clearest exposition of why Rudy Giuliani must not, under any circumstances, ever hold an elective office again. For all the grievous shortcomings of the Clintons, the insane criminality of their opponents—check out Anthony Lewis's essay in the current New York Review of Books—makes them look statesmanlike and heroic by comparison, much as Rudy's viciousness has conferred dignity and stature on Al Sharpton. What can one say about a mayor with so little respect for the law that, in the face of murder, he flippantly waves around sealed court records? For starters, shouldn't he be disbarred?

And what should be done about the perpetrators of Aida? You can't very well disbar people from writing for Broadway just because they have no idea what they're doing. With a little thought added—Elton John seems barely able to think beyond four notes—it might have struck a vein of truth. They begin as far away from Verdi as possible, with Radames, on an expedition, kidnapping Aida into slavery and then falling in love with her. (Somebody's been listening to Meyerbeer's L'Africaine instead.) Then the plot gets doubly convoluted: Radames's father is slowly poisoning the Pharaoh, so Radames can marry Pharaoh's daughter Amneris and get on the throne. But Pharaoh already wants this to happen; the poison's pointless. Aida wants Radames to free the Nubian slaves, but he can't if he doesn't marry Amneris. A saner mind would have thrown the extra junk out and followed Verdi scene for scene; a wit would have given the spoof its ultimate twist: Radames lets Pharaoh die, marries Amneris, and uses the throne to advance his own liberal program. But a Disney musical can't spoof murder and marriage, no way. So instead we get a dreary mishmash, with lyrics and music alike petering out after a few vaguely interesting phrases, huge globs of scenery that alternate the elegantly imaginative with the Las Vegas hideous, and acres of costumes, which must be pretty heavy under that blazing Egyptian sun. Amneris, the ultimate Nile Valley girl, gets to wear a lampshade on her head.

Anna Deavere Smith in House Arrest: setting dangerous presidents
photo: Mark Douet
Anna Deavere Smith in House Arrest: setting dangerous presidents


House Arrest
By Anna Deavere Smith
Joseph Papp Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Street

By Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang
Score by Elton John and Tim Rice
Palace Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street

The Nubian slaves are the only peasantry we see; the word fellahin is apparently not in Disney's vocabulary. Though the story ought to focus on Aida, their would-be liberator, and her conflicted loyalties, it keeps jumping back to Radames's daddy problem or Amneris's Radames problem. Heather Headley, burning-eyed and fiery-voiced, does everything she can, but an actress can't refocus a mangled plot structure by main force, and Sherie Rene Scott's Amneris, who's her equal in beauty and vocal flair, has the fashion advantage. But it's hardly worth talking about a piece that hasn't been written or even thought through. The annoying part is that everyone involved clearly meant to do something serious; they just didn't know how.

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