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PHOTO BY NICK ENGLESSON Charlene Jean (Aida) sings in a scene from PHOTO BY NICK ENGLESSON Charlene Jean (Aida) sings in a scene from "Aida," through Aug. 11, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem

THEATER REVIEW

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

A star is born in Pa. Playhouse 'Aida'

As the late theater critic Jack O'Brian (1914 - 2000) wrote in his syndicated column, "Voice of Broadway" and said on his afternoon interview show WOR-AM: "Always the young strangers."

It's uncertain whether the phrase was borrowed from the title of Carl Sandburg's 1953 book, but O'Brian used it to refer to new talent in break-through roles in Broadway shows.

The joy of discovering new talent applies to regional theater, and especially, community theater, as in "Aida," with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, through Aug. 11 at Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem, where Charlene Jean, a Parkland High School graduate attending Howard University this fall, is stunning in the title role.

Jean has a wonderful stage presence and sings superbly as the Nubian princess Aida in "The Past Is Another World"; "Easy As Life"; "How I Know You," a duet with Mereb (Alessandra DeMartino, a sprightly presence in strong voice); and the "Enchantment Passing Through," "Elaborate Lives" and "Written in The Stars" (recorded and sung by Elton John and LeAnn Rimes, reaching No.2 on Billboard) duets with Radames (Charles Weingold III, who assays the role with brio) and "Not Me," sung with Mereb, Radames, and Amneris (Kendra O'Donnell).

O'Donnell presents a determined Amneris, princess heir to the Egyptian throne, in "I Know The Truth" and "My Strongest Suit," with the Palace Women in full 1960s' girl-group vocals and go-go choreography by Shane Fischetti.

Jim Vivian is an authoritative Zoser and in fine voice in "Like Father, Like Son," a duet with Radames, and "Another Pyramid," a reggae-flavored tune sung with the Ministers providing backup.

Deborah D'Haiti is a memorable Nehebka in "The Dance Of The Robe."

Bill Bynon is an affable Pharoah.

Laurie Zane Wieder effectively stages the numerous scenes (12 in act one, 10 in act two) and keeps the large cast of seven leads and ensemble of 18 moving.

Wieder and the cast, led by Jean, O'Donnell and DeMartino, achieve a moment of true artistry and theatrical emotion with the gospel music influenced "The Gods Love Nubia" act one closer.

Pravin Matthew conducts the orchestra of eight musicians, including those on violin, viola, clarinet and French horn, who deliver the challenging score in rousing fashion.

Speaking of fashion, the costumes, with an uncredited costume designer, are often gorgeous, including a purple gown worn by Aida and courtly attire and gowns worn by Amneris.

The songs, from a story based on the Giuseppe Verdi opera, are in the style of Sir Elton, while not particularly as memorable as his biggest hits.

The set is minimalist. The musical is framed with interesting museum scenes, which lend a certain poignancy.

If you enjoy a good yarn and the music of Elton John, and want to discover a rising star, don't miss "Aida" at Pennsylvania Playhouse.