AIDA Palace Theatre
CHICAGO Ambassador Theatre
Actresses don’t like to tell their ages, but Broadway shows do. The Phantom of the Opera advertises that the show is now in its ”16th haunting year!” The Lion King wears its 1998 Tony award for Best Musical like a distinguished service medal. Who are the actual actors playing the Phantom and the Lion King? Who knows! For some sturdy enterprises, title recognition alone is enough to sustain the desirable theatrical condition known as Long Running.
An injection of celebrity, however, is the more fashionable current treatment to extend the life of a mature production – which is why Brooke Shields, Deborah Gibson, and (currently) Providence’s Melina Kanakaredes have worn Sally Bowles’ Cabaret black-lace bustier over the years. It’s also why Toni Braxton now arrives playing the title role in the three-and-a-half-year-old Aida, and Melanie Griffith undertakes her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago, a revival now in its seventh year.
And therein lies a study in theatrical pharmacology. Because while the Grammy-winning Braxton – who previously held the spotlight in Beauty and the Beast – provides an attractive distraction from the oily gear-grinding of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Disney stage contraption, a terrified Griffith offers a striking lesson in the triumph of a great show over the weaknesses of any one performer.
Braxton is no stage singer. The warm pop-chart voice that embraces listeners when modulated in a recording studio isn’t made for the caverns of the Palace Theatre, and even though seriously miked, Braxton swallows her phrases and loses wind before her songs as a Nubian princess enslaved in Egypt come to an end. But as a result, any pretense of artistic sophistication – the kind of elegance and clarity projected by Heather Headley as the original Aida – is dropped. And that’s not bad. Aida may be based on Giuseppe Verdi’s 1871 opera and influenced by the scale (and financial success) of The Lion King, but it’s a big old hunk of Las Vegas dinner theater. Braxton is proud, happy, and hardworking. The machinery cranks efficiently.
Griffith is no stage singer either. Nor a dancer, nor a stage presence. Fear, anxiety, and vulnerability waft off of her performance two weeks into her 11-week run, and when she sings ”Roxie,” what’s meant to be an epiphany about the cold power of calculated fame sounds more plaintive than gutsy. Of course, those who savor the Griffith back story (detox, plastic surgery, divorce) may spend their time touched by the actress’ grim grit: Here she is, dragging herself through what looks to be a kind of agony, while across the street her husband, Antonio Banderas, smoothly charms audiences of swooning women in Nine.
The rest of us, meanwhile, can admire the strength with which the entire heart-of-Broadway cast – down to a chorus-line boy or girl – flexes to support Griffith’s exertions, cover her limitations, and show off the show’s great, dark art. Deidre Goodwin (as Velma Kelly), P.J. Benjamin (Amos Hart), and Brent Barrett (Billy Flynn) aren’t marquee stars, but they’re Broadway troupers. And they razzle-dazzle. Braxton in Aida: B Griffith in Chicago: C-