Michael Bobbitt’s ‘Aida’ Mixes Grandeur and Intimacy at Constellation

Broadway Glitz in a Black Box Theater.

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Michael Bobbitt gets around.

This master-of-all-trades, whose adaptation of Aida is now playing to sold-out audiences at Constellation Theatre, has danced, directed and choreographed his way around half the theaters in D.C.

Michael J. Bobbitt. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Michael J. Bobbitt. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In addition to his “day job” at Adventure Theatre—where he has been artistic director since 2007—Bobbitt’s work has molded productions at Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre, The Kennedy Center and Strathmore.

But never, until now, has he worked at Constellation, the tiny black box theater housed inside the Source building on Washington’s 14th Street, known as the “coolest corridor” in the District.

Aida is my debut at Constellation,” he said, when we met for coffee just before the show’s opening. When I asked why it took so long, he laughed.

“I asked Allison”—that’s founder and artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman—“the same thing. Her answer was that she assumed I was too busy!”

Bobbitt, of course, is never too busy for a great show. And this particular Aida, a contemporary rock musical based on the 19th-century opera, was perfect for a man of his tastes.

Surprisingly, the story—about star-crossed lovers in ancient Egypt—seemed just right for a stage as intimate as Constellation’s.

“These are teenagers,” he reminded me. “Just like Romeo and Juliet.”

Shayla S. Simmons (Aida), and Jobari Parker-Namdar (Radames) in Aida, now playing at Constellation Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Shayla S. Simmons (Aida), and Jobari Parker-Namdar (Radames) in Aida, now playing at Constellation Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

So even though he (the hero, Radames) is the future son-in-law of a mighty Pharaoh, and she (Aida) is the princess of Nubia—an African country conquered, according to historical records, by Egypt in 1500 BC—they are torn between obedience and passion.

“These two are caught up in the agony of first love. They’re innocent but rebellious,” Bobbitt said, adding that the Broadway stage is too big for this kind of deeply personal struggle.

Adapting the show, which was first produced by Disney at the Palace Theater in New York in 2000, took some doing. Bobbitt described the process.

“First we had to reconfigure the seats,” he said. This was in order to change the theater from in-the-round to proscenium style because, he added, “I think a musical just works better that way.” The new arrangement allows for 10 rows, all facing the stage.

The orchestra, normally much larger, was cut to six musicians—two keyboards, electric and bass guitar, drums, and wind—all hidden off to one side. The sound is spectacular.

[Related: Aida Music Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy ‘Perhaps He’s a Prodigy’]

Second, Bobbitt and his team decided to reduce the cast, using an ensemble of 14 players instead of the original 25. Moreover, “Everyone in the cast is a person of color,” he added, “regardless of whether their background is Asian, Latin American, African or Middle Eastern.”

Yet there is no racial component in this show. “Egypt and Nubia are two nations at war,” he explained. “Their differences are cultural. And they’re revealed through costume and lighting.”

According to Bobbitt, the show’s success owes a lot to the collaboration between A.J. Guban, Constellation’s managing director and resident lighting designer, and Kenann M. Quander, who created the ravishing costumes.

“Quander moved the clothing away from the usual clichés about Egypt. She uses rich, glitzy and intoxicating color and design. She’s a star,” Bobbitt said. “Her level of taste, creativity, interest in detail, storytelling, and knowledge of history, are all superb.”

The cast of Aida, now playing at Constellation Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
The cast of Aida, now playing at Constellation Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Another change from the Broadway version—requested directly from Disney—involved cutting the somewhat creaky conceit of having modern actors bookend the show.

I was curious to know why this version of Aida—with music by Elton John—was chosen, rather than the original, written by Guiseppe Verdi and first performed in Cairo in 1871.

“Because Verdi’s Aida—being grand opera—is very elitist in a way,” Bobbitt said. “This adaptation makes the material more digestible. It’s a way of attracting a larger and younger audience.”

It works. The audience, when I saw the show shortly after its opening, was jam-packed. There was not an empty seat in the house.

More important, the audience was multi-racial and multi-generational. And those are two groups—people of color and those under 40—who are highly sought after in theater today.

Tickets for this version of Aida are selling fast. I checked with Sarah Anne Sillers, the development manager at the nonprofit theater, about availability.

Her advice? “Get tickets as soon as possible.” She recommends Sunday, Monday and Wednesday evening performances for the next four weeks. And then? “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

AIDA plays through November 18, 2018, at Constellation Theatre, located inside the Source, at 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741 or go online.

Click here for DCMTA’s review by John Stoltenberg, which raises the question of how a mammoth Broadway musical could fit into a modest black box theater on funky 14th Street.

Click here for DCMTA’s editor Nicole Hertvik’s feature story on prodigy—and music director—Walter “Bobby” McCoy.

Click here for our previous interview with Michael Bobbitt, who co-hosted—and helped choreograph—this year’s Helen Hayes Awards.

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