New Venture bringing ‘Aida,’ and some flamboyant sets, to BR stage

“Aida” is a story of forbidden love first staged in 1871 at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo.

Elton John and Tim Rice refashioned it for the Broadway stage in 2000, and now New Venture Theatre is bringing the story to Baton Rouge when it opens the musical on Thursday, July 10, in the Manship Theatre.

“This is another show that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but we had to wait until the timing was right,” says Greg Williams Jr., New Venture’s founder, artistic director and director of this show. “Everything came together perfectly this year. We have 38 people in the cast, and I love the diversity in this cast.”

Actually, the combined 50 set pieces — the setting is the Egyptian wing of a modern museum, complete with massive columns flanking the stage and a sculpted pharaoh’s head — could be considered a 39th cast member.

“We started building the sets weeks before we started rehearsals,” Williams says. “We’re housing them in a warehouse that was used to store Mardi Gras floats.”

Set designer Brandon Lewis had to keep close tabs on rehearsals.

“I have to watch the actors and dancers to make sure that what they’re doing coincides with what we’re doing with the sets,” Lewis says. “We’ll go from the museum to a dock scene in ancient Egypt to the sculpture of the pharaoh head, and a dancer may be perfectly fine standing in a corner during rehearsal, but that might be where a column is supposed to be on stage.”

Every piece of this puzzle must be in place before the curtain opens on “Aida,” which takes place in ancient Egypt. It begins with the return of Radames, captain of the Egyptian army, after an expedition through Nubia. Ramades’ soldiers have captured a group of Nubian women along the way, and one catches his eye when she duels one of his troops.

This woman, of course, is Aida, who doesn’t tell Ramades that her father is the king of Nubia. Ramades, meanwhile, is betrothed to the pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris, which would put him in line to be Egypt’s next pharaoh.

But it’s clear he doesn’t love Amneris, and, if his true love is discovered, it could mean death for both him and Aida.

The story plays out with a pop-rock score that features stirring ballads and moving choral numbers, including the ballad “Written in the Stars,” which reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts.

And all of it will come together on the Manship stage, where Lewis’ ancient halls were designed, first on a series of napkins, then drawn freehand on a larger scale.

“I brought in two designers for this show,” Williams says. “I wanted one who could draw and design it, and the other who could build it.”

Lewis is the fine arts teacher at Baker High School, where set design is part of the job. He’s worked on several big shows, but “Aida” is his biggest so far.

“We’re using foam board and fabric to make these pieces,” he says. “It’s like a gumbo with all the ingredients coming together. It’s been a lot of work, but I think people are going to be very surprised when they walk into the theater for this show.”

CAST: Angel Bailey, Aida; Jamie Hipp, Amneris; Quentin Noel, Amonasro/Radames understudy; Toi Bonnet, Mereb; A’sjah Edwards, Nehebka; Kevin Harger, Pharaoh; Leonard Harris, Radames; Christian Jones, Zoser. Featured dancers — Aniyah Demoulin, Chaneyra Valentine, Christian Simon, Courtney Jacobs, Elexis Selmon, Infiniti Eaglin, Jada Delpit, Jessica Carter, Jewel Smith, Kelsea Barnes, Lauren Brumfield, McCaala Nelson, Trinity Alexander, Tyron’e Hawkins. Ensemble — Drelan Evans, Hope Landor, Kai Lewis (Aida understudy), Kelly Lockhart, Morgan Etienne, Natalie Sibille (Amneris understudy), Rosalind Reynard, Shannon Harger.

ARTISTIC STAFF: Greg Williams Jr., director; Kelly Latchie, set designer; Brandon Lewis, set designer; Alvin A. Temple, costumer; Loneka Wilkinson Battiste, musical director; Avery Wilson, choreographer; Christopher D. Daniel, stage manager; Lindsey Roy, assistant musical director; Caiden Crockett, assistant director.