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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

Tragedy done Disney-style

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jaymes Hodges plays the character Radames opposite Melodye Perry, who is in the title role of Aida. Jaymes Hodges plays the character Radames opposite Melodye Perry, who is in the title role of Aida.
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She is not a villain. She s just misunderstood.

Lesli Margherita protested a reference to Amneris, her character in Elton John and Tim Rice s Aida, which opens Thursday in the Stranahan Theater.

Amneris is just a very self-absorbed princess, the Paris Hilton of her day, Margherita said last week in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles, where the troupe was on break between performances.

Aida, loosely based on Giuseppi Verdi s opera, is a love triangle set in ancient Egypt involving the princess Amneris, the slave Aida, and the soldier Radames. John and Rice wrote the music and lyrics and David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Robert Falls, and Linda Woolverton the book for this Disney production. It opened in 2000 on Broadway and played for 1,852 performances before closing last September after winning Tony Awards for original musical score, actress, scenic design, and costume design.

Amneris starts out as sort of a comic character.

Her father, the pharaoh, has been trying to instill in the young princess a sense of responsibility toward Egypt and its people, but the lessons aren t sinking in.

She s just very into herself and how she looks and her clothes. Margherita said. She s much more into that than being the possible ruler of her country. And she s very much in love with Radames.

Betrothed at a very young age, Amneris and Radames have been engaged for almost a decade, but during the course of the show, he falls in love with Aida, a servant of Amneris.

What makes this truly poignant is that Aida is a Nubian princess stolen into slavery. She and Amneris become good friends, and Aida helps Amneris understand that there s more to her than her clothing.

I love Amneris; she s just drawn with so many dimensions. Aida comes out and she s very strong, and she knows who she is already. So she s pretty much herself the entire show. [Amneris] definitely goes through the most changes of any character, Margherita said.

The Verdi opera is a tragedy, but this is a Disney production geared to the entire family, so is there a happy ending?

The most Margherita would say is that it s a different kind of happy ending, even though there are some deaths in it. She much preferred to talk about her favorite scenes in the show.

I have two. There s a fashion show within the show and I get to come down the runway in this outrageous outfit. I absolutely love that moment.

And the second is when I get dressed for my wedding knowing that my soon-to-be husband is in love with someone else. It s believed that Elton John wrote the song it s called I Know the Truth about Princess Diana, because she knew, literally the night before she got married, that Prince Charles was not in love with her. So he wrote this beautiful but horribly sad song, and I get to sing it.

Other songs in the production include Fortune Favors the Brave, Elaborate Lives, Every Story is a Love Story, My Strongest Suit, and Written in the Stars.

It s so much fun to sing and to listen to, Margherita said. It s definitely got more of a pop rock feel to it, and it s fantastic. You can tell it s got Elton John written all over it.

Also gorgeous are the costumes.

I don t wear the same thing twice. I come out in a different elaborate costume every scene. I think I have eight or nine different wigs, because you can t have the same hair style twice either. It s kind of a dream role for a girl, actually.

Margherita laughed, which she did often during the interview, her enthusiasm for the role unforced and spilling over into the conversation at every turn.

Co-starring with her are Melodye Perry as Aida and Jaymes Hodges as Radames.

They are fantastic. We ve had such a great time. The director did such a great job of casting the best people that he could find. It s so lucky that the cast is all-around so nice and loves doing the show, and we really do all get along. It doesn t always work that way.

The tour of Aida that comes to Toledo is a brand-new one. It started in January, playing the first three weeks in Los Angeles, then went on the road. After a bit of a breather for the cast, the production resumed its travels.

Margherita said one of the best parts of the tour is that the pace is not quite as hectic as in some productions. Because of the complexity of the staging, the show generally runs for several days, giving the cast a chance to unwind, do laundry, and get some sleep.

We re actually the way that our schedule works, I m looking at it right now we travel to Toledo on Monday the 18th, so we ve got the 19th and 20th off to take a look around the city. It s great. We normally don t get days off in the cities that we re in, so this will be really fun.

Although it might seem hard to perform on a new stage each week, Margherita said the change actually keeps the show fresh.

We go into the theater on the day of the first performance and we ll run through the musical numbers and big chunks of the show on the new stage, and it all feels different. It s really offstage that s the most difficult. Some places have smaller wing space that we need to rearrange our costumes in or we need to make entrances on different sides.

Aida travels with a cast of 25 to 30 actors, a full orchestra, and some crew members, hiring other behind-the-scenes people locally to work the huge set.

Like the helicopter in Miss Saigon and the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera, Aida, too, has a signature.

We ve got four huge, huge pillars that are kind of the centerpiece of the set. They move around the stage. They re just enormous. One side has hieroglyphs, the other side has statues inside the pillars.

The set is gorgeous. Aida is really a visual show. Margherita said.

The actress said she has been performing professionally for about 20 years. She started studying dance when she was about 4 years

old in the San Francisco area, then got into singing and acting. When she was 10, she started appearing in Annie.

After graduating from UCLA, she was chosen to be in the cast of a remake of the TV series Fame LA, and has done guest spots on The District, JAG, The King of Queens, and other shows.

It wasn t long before live theater called again, and Margherita got the role of Amneris. She said she s delighted to be in a show that is so family-friendly.

My niece is 7, and she just loved the princess part of Aida, Margherita said. Boys like the soldiers, adults the love story, and everyone the Elton John music.

It s a tough show not to like.

Elton John and Tim Rice s Aida opens Thursday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. April 24. Tickets range from $32.50 to $41.50 and are available through the Stranahan box office, Ticketmaster, or online at www.theaterleague.com. Information: 419-381-8851.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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