"How I Know You" is the first number Vinny Chavez sings in the musical AIDA that opens at Hale Theatre this weekend. Playing the role of Mereb, a palace slave in Egypt, Chavez visited with Phx Stages about being an in-the-know peacemaker between high tensions and high stakes.
From Mereb's perspective, Chavez says the war story tells how an Egyptian captain falls in love with a new Nubian slave while engaged to the Egyptian princess, Amneris. Mereb recognizes the new slave girl as Aida, the princess of his own people before they were all enslaved.
"I love that it's a classic story with a pop score," Chavez says about the Elton John Disney musical that's based on the same romance as Verdi's famous 1871 opera.
"I can't afford to throw away one loyalty for another as Mereb," says Chavez. "But even as [Captain] Radames' confidant, I still see home in Aida's eyes and wonder if I can be her right hand man, too."
With a powerful winning score that features swelling love songs, the show won four Tony Awards in 2000. It contains a lovely bit of story magic, too. Aida grieves her inaccessible past as a land to which she can't return.... yet we access the musical via the future into history. In the end, it makes the tragedy less tragic.
It's a tangled web as the two princesses and would-be prince glimpse the fleeting paradises before them. Mereb, not unlike Chavez in real life, tries mightily to prevent fate's jaws from slamming shut.
"I look to understand people in their predicament," Chavez reflects. "For my friends, I'm usually the problem-solver and negotiator, so to speak, trying to make peace."
That nurturing tendency makes one of Mereb's last numbers toughest to sing for Chavez. "Not Me," emphasizes the doomed love triangle while Pincess Aida (Ashley Jackson), Radames (Ben Mason) and Princess Amneris (Victoria Fairclough) mourn a harmonized trio of passionate realizations.
"The number is staged so I am truly a spectator, just like the audience," Chavez says. "There's not anything Mereb can do except watch how torn up about each other the three are."
The woe in AIDA is not without scattered sunbeams of humor. As an actor whose comedic crayons have been sharpened by several past Hale roles, including the hilarious leading man in Me and My Girl, Chavez is happy for the chance to provide a little levity. After AIDA, he'll likely splash a full rainbow of comedy as Sebastian in Hale's season closer, Little Mermaid.
"I offer some comic relief as Mereb, too, even though we keep the serious subject matter at the forefront," Chavez says.
Little giggles wrapped in a big, sad but hopeful story is what AIDA offers. By the time the audience hears Mereb singing in "Not Me," the tragic plot line is too far gone to rescue. For Hale Theatre and Chavez, however, all is far from lost. Quite the opposite, with a winning show like AIDA on stage for the next six weeks.
"The three leads, wow," Chavez says. "Ashley, Victoria and Ben have the most powerful voices I have heard together on a Phoenix stage."
It's a grand tale that wraps us in velvety music and transports us centuries back. Chavez is caught smack dab in the middle of the orchestrations, helping tell a tale of human failing and of love that never dies.
"It's an important story for Hale to tell today. Regardless of race, it tells how silly war can be." Chavez says, suggesting he knows our capacity as well as Mereb knows the three main characters'. "AIDA can give people a different perspective. It simply demonstrates we are all capable of loving others despite our differences."
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