Getting there is a big part of the total theater experience at Arrow Rock, the Santa Fe Trail river town west of Columbia that is now a state historic site. After you exit Interstate 70, those final back-road miles on Highway 41 are framed by cornfields so scenic, a traveler might fancy he's driven smack onto the set of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Or even one by Lerner and Loewe, for Arrow Rock's quaint Victorian architecture causes a tourist to wonder if he hasn't happened upon a Brigadoon-like time warp -- perhaps Our Town's Grover's Corners or Tom Sawyer's Hannibal. Indeed, 30 years ago a film version of Tom Sawyer with Jodie Foster was filmed here; Arrow Rock is still as freshly painted as it was when the movie was shooting.
In addition to the compulsory antique shops, inns and B&Bs, at the far end of town (population 77), closest to the bend where the Missouri River used to sweep by (till it changed its capricious route), the 408-seat Lyceum Theater stands atop a grassy knoll, justifying Arrow Rock's continued existence. This once-makeshift theater opened in 1961 with an ambitious four-play season; 43 years later it has settled into a thriving operation, the recipient of local support from such nearby communities as Columbia, Sedalia and Boonville.
This summer and fall the Lyceum, the only professional regional theater between St. Louis and Kansas City, is presenting a populist nine-play season of musicals (Pippin, Big River) comedy (The Foreigner) and light drama (The Drawer Boy). Long gone are those early summers given over to heavy hitters like Ibsen and Pirandello; nowadays William Inge (Bus Stop) is about as serious as the traffic will allow.
This week the Lyceum is staging the Disney opus Aida, which is quite an event, when you consider that the Elton John-Tim Rice pop-rock musical is still running on Broadway. As Sir Elton's fans already know, the story is drawn from Giuseppe Verdi's opera set in Egypt during the pyramid-building days of the pharaohs. The plot concerns an Egyptian war hero who spurns the love of Pharaoh's daughter for that of a captive Nubian princess.
When Aida opened at New York's Palace Theater in March 2000, nobody much liked it -- except the audiences. That production will finally close in September, after having racked up nearly 1,900 performances while turning a tidy profit in excess of $12 million. Meanwhile Disney has wasted no time in releasing production rights to regional and community theaters. Hence the Lyceum is one of the first theaters in America to mount its own Aida.
Even in this stripped-down version (or perhaps because the show can be more clearly viewed apart from its high-tech trappings), it's easy to see why audiences have taken to it. For starters, the libretto has its fair share of amusing lines. Although Aida offers a constant litany of betrayal, poisoning and death-by-suffocation, all this mayhem is executed as Disney-sanitized family fare, no more disturbing than a comic book.
The Lyceum production has been cleanly staged by artistic director Michael Bollinger and handsomely lit by Jonathan A. Reed. In the title role, Vashty E. Mompoint sings the less-than-memorable Elton John songs in a strong, clear voice. As Radames, the Egyptian warrior who makes the mistake of falling in love with the captive princess, Ryan Link (who appeared in the Aida national tour) emanates the confidence of a young Patrick Swayze.
When, after the final dress rehearsal, the actress cast in the second female lead succumbed to laryngitis, recent Webster University theater conservatory graduate Jenn Seracuse stepped out of the ensemble to fill in. As Pharaoh's narcissistic daughter, Seracuse delivers a poised performance that impresses with both its humor and humanity.
But the real story here is not Aida, entertaining though it is. The headline here is Arrow Rock. Every summer theater lovers travel great distances to visit the Shakespeare and Shaw festivals in Canada or the Berkshire and Stockbridge theater festivals in Massachusetts. People travel these great distances not simply for the plays but also to immerse themselves in the small-town ambiance that provides such a refreshing escape from the daily drudge. Arrow Rock, less than two-and-a-half hours' drive from St. Louis, is a lot closer than Canada or Massachusetts. Yet in its own modest way, this friendly hamlet offers intrepid theatergoers that same bucolic aura.