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'Written in the Stars'

Giuseppe Verdi might recognize "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida" — it's still a story of love, honor and courage — but it's hard imagine what the great opera composer might think of all those Elton John tunes.

Craterian Performances will present "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida" at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, March 26-27, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford.

Set in ancient times but updated with modern dialogue and comic touches, it's the classic story of a doomed romance. Radames, commander of the Egyptian army, is engaged to the Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris, but falls in love with Aida, captive daughter of the Nubian king, who was defeated in battle.

Although based on Verdi's famous work, which was first performed in 1871, this is not that "Aida." The songs run from reggae to Motown to gospel to pop. The score earned the original Broadway production a Tony Award in 2000 for Best Original Score.

Several of the songs went on to become hits in their own right, including "Written in the Stars," which was recorded by Elton John and LeAnn Rimes.

The story of this new take on Verdi's masterpiece goes back to 1994, when it was clear that Elton John's musical score for Disney's "The Lion King" — his first ever — was a success. Rice, the former partner of Andrew Lloyd Webber, had collaborated with John.

As the story goes, Disney executives wanted to sign the two to a project to make "Aida" into an animated children's film, a la "The Lion King," but John and Rice turned the proposal down. They bit, however, on the idea of turning one of the world's most famous operas into a Broadway musical.

Linda Woolverton, the author of the book for the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast," re-wrote Verdi's story, including some fairly major changes. Writers Robert Falls and Tony-winning David Hwang were brought in as co-writers.

"Radames gets to the point where he says, 'I really want to help you," Hwang explains in a statement released by the production. "And she says, 'If you want to help me you have to help my people.' It's an example of how falling in love with someone, beginning to see the world through their eyes, can change the way you see larger issues."

The original tale, too, was written on commission. Ismail Pasha, the Turkish official governing Egypt at the time, paid Verdi to create an opera with an Egyptian theme expressly for the splendid new opera house that had been built in Cairo, and which was viewed with great pride.

A French Egyptologist named Mariette Bey wrote a sketch that was set in Memphis and Thebes and included a big judgment scene. Verdi liked it and wrote the music to go with it, and his friend Camille du Locle wrote the book. The opera was much delayed by politics and war, but when it finally hit the stage in 1871 it was a major sensation.

Flash forward more than a century. Woolverton placed the captive Aida at the center of the story, set it in Nubia instead of Egypt, had Radames fall in love with Aida on the stage instead of before the play begins, and had the character Amneris also befriend Aida — all departures from the Verdi/du Locle tale.

A version that opened in 1998 in Atlanta, titled "Elaborate Lives," (one of the show's songs) fell short of commercial and artistic expectations. A new director and writer were brought in to make changes designed to give the characters more depth.

The show finally opened on Broadway under its current title in March of 2000, with Heather Headley as Aida. It was a major hit, earning Tonys for John and Headley, as well as for scenic and lighting design. It ran more than four years.

The touring show has been produced through arrangements with Disney by New York-based Big League Theatricals, which produces Broadway musicals for touring. It has been designed to be stunning visually as well as musically, with contemporary dance, flavors of African and Middle Eastern dance and the lavish costumes and elaborate sets you expect.

But for all the pizzazz, producers say, the story's focus remains set on human experiences. Like how falling in love with somebody can change one's view of the world, and how much we're willing to risk for those we happen to love.

Director Daniel Stewart told reporters the show aims "for the heart, as opposed to the intellect."

Marja Harmon (a veteran of regional productions of "Jekyll and Hyde," "Ragtime" and "Dreamgirls") stars in the touring company as Aida. Casey Elliott (Tony in "West Side Story," Archibald in "The Secret Garden") is Radames. Leah Allers, who plays Amneris, has a long list of credits and is making her National Tour debut.

Tickets are $58, $52, $46 and $40. See www.craterian.org or call 779-3000.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at bvarble@mailtribune.com or 776-4478.

Elton John and Tim Rice's take on Verdi's opera is set in ancient times with modern dialogue and comic touches. - Craterian Performances