While Covid wanes, there's no end in sight for 'Aida'

Tracey Corea, associate director and choreographer of the ongoing sixth season of the Korean production of "Aida," poses in front of the musical's photo zone at Blue Square in Yongsan District, central Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Eight days after national health authorities lifted the outdoor mask mandate, hundreds of locals ready to let loose packed into the Blue Square theater in central Seoul for the first preview performance of this year’s local production of musical “Aida” on May 10.

And the show did not disappoint.

Ostensibly based on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Disney musical flaunts a Tony-winning score and an ultimate coming-of-age romance between Egyptian captain Radames, enslaved Nubian Princess Aida and Pharaoh’s daughter Princess Amneris. A tear-jerker in one scene and then a hilarious comedy in another, “Aida” is a fully-packaged Broadway megahit.

Still going strong 17 years after the Korean production of “Aida” first opened in Seoul, its return to the stage for the sixth time is a true testament to its local popularity.

“There is such a love of musicals here that I don’t know is equaled anywhere else in the world,” said the production’s new associate director and choreographer Tracey Corea, 54, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on May 11.

Musical industry veteran Corea has been with “Aida” since 1999 as an associate choreographer, alongside prolific choreographer Wayne Cilento. The show premiered on Broadway in March 2000 and ran for 1,852 performances until September 2004. The ongoing production in Korea is her first time directing “Aida.”

Corea believes the show is as relevant as ever today.

“[Before], most of us hadn’t gone through wars [the backdrop of the show], but now, with a worldwide pandemic and the war in Ukraine, we are living in tumultuous times. Such recent events have certainly informed this production.”

Actors Choi Jae-rim as Radames, left, and Jeon Na-young as Aida performing "Elaborate Lives" during the 2019 production of "Aida." [SEENSEE COMPANY]

As Corea stepped into her new role of director, she said her main focus was on portraying love and relationships, perhaps on a more profound level than the show’s previous productions.

“'Aida’ has always been a love story but I wanted to get more into how and when they fall in love –and often, those moments are not written in the script,” said Corea. “They are in between the words.”

She recalled a directorial moment during one of the early days of rehearsals when the cast was practicing the show’s very intimate duet “Elaborate Lives.”

“I knew that Soo-ha [the actor portraying Aida] was nervous because she had Woo-hyung [the actor portraying Radames] touching her for the first time in front of her contemporaries and me. But I thought I’m just going to let it run! And it turned out to be magical because Soo-ha acted just the sheer intuition that came to her and in the most truthful way that is possible. Tears started to pour out of her eyes and we were all enthralled.”

Actors Ivy as Amneris, front and Jeon during a scene in the 2019 production of "Aida." [SEENSEE COMPANY]

Under directions to accentuate the drama in “Aida,” Egyptian warrior Radames has become less macho and more romantic, according to actor Choi Jae-rim, who alternates the role of Radames, during the show’s online press conference on May 3. Actor Ivy in the role of Amneris said that she is able to portray her character’s devastation better as she witnesses a more intense romance between Radames and Aida on stage.

Corea commended the actors for following her direction, albeit a little too well at times.

“Sometimes I had to make them not be so emotional!” exclaimed Corea, as she recalled instances during rehearsals when a cast member would burst into tears which would trigger everyone else in the room to cry as well.

Corea has been working with the company for the last five weeks in Korea.

Though the start of rehearsals were pushed back due to cast members contracting Covid-19, Corea said such a well-prepared cast helped successfully take “Aida” to the stage amid the lingering pandemic.

“I was very nervous knowing basically we were a week behind. But we were able to make up the lost time so rapidly because most of the company remembered their lines and blocking from the previous season,” said Corea.

All but two of the 32-person company from the previous season of "Aida" returned for the current season of the show. Two new actors were added — Kim Soo-ha as Aida and Min Kyung-ah as Amneris — which Corea said brings “new vibrancy and youthfulness to her and the other principal members of the cast.”

The rest of the main cast is comprised of veteran actors Yoon Gong-joo and Jeon Na-young as Aida; Kim Woo-hyung and Choi Jae-rim as Radames; and Ivy as Amneris who have all starred in more than one production of “Aida.”

Also well-acquainted with the Korean productions of “Aida,” Corea said she has come to understand and appreciate the Korean musical theater industry's rather distinctive ways.

“It is unique that there are three Aidas and all the other roles are double-cast — It is unlike anywhere else in the world. In this way, actors actually get to sit out, watch the show and get to experience the show from a fuller perspective. It’s not just from one viewpoint of being onstage so they learn from one another and they are incredibly supportive of one another.”

She continued, “Also, in New York, a show opens and runs for as long as it runs. So a musical may stay open for four or even 10 years and the cast doesn’t change. Here, because shows run for a very short period of time, actors can take a break or do other shows. Then, when they come back, the actors are excited again. Under this system, I feel like I’m always getting 100 percent from everybody,” said Corea.

Actor Jeon as Aida during the 2019 production of "Aida." [SEENSEE COMPANY]

“Aida” may well be marking the end of the pandemic as the number of new cases has been slashed by nearly 90 percent since March.

“I don’t want to get my hopes up [that the pandemic is going to end] because every time I do that, a new Covid variant has popped up. But the energy of the theater tonight really did make me feel like everything was back to normal,” said a 28-year-old surnamed Lee as she was leaving the preview performance. She had come from Yongin, Gyeonggi, with her boyfriend on a date night that the couple used to enjoy often before the pandemic.

Hearing the thunderous sound of hands smacking together after an impressively belted F sharp by actor Jeon’s Aida, one can’t help but feel a little hopeful — we may actually be nearing an end to this crisis.

“Aida” runs through August 7. Tickets range from 70,000 won ($54) to 150,000 won.