It’s probably no exaggeration to say that for the majority of us, it is the musical “Evita” which educates us mostly to Argentina’s post war history.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the men who invented rock opera, could not have tapped into a better subject than the real Eva Duarte de Peron, an ambitious material girl from the sticks who made it big in show business, who moved on to politics and became a worshipped first lady- a holy strumpet of sorts, but behaved like a vestal virgin. Eva lived fast, died young and left a corpse so good-looking that it became an object of adoration years after her death in 1952.
The sung-through musical has had many resurgent revivals, tours, cast recordings and reworks over the years, but scored big after hitting London's West End in 1978, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical. Then a year later, on Broadway, “Evita” became the first British entry to receive the Tony Award for Best Musical. Many of you may also remember a critically acclaimed major film back in 1996 which starred Madonna and Antonio Banderas - also a sung-through.
The show, currently playing at Golden West College’s Mainstage Theater through May 6th, is Directed and Choreographed by Martie Ramm and Musically Directed by Rick Heckman. The story concentrates on Eva Perón’s life as the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, her status as a social icon to the working class, her rapid rise to power as a political leader, her noble charity work, and of course, her eventual untimely death.
As the lights dim, we are first taken to a cinema in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1952, as a news bulletin announces that their beloved First Lady Eva Peron (Kalinda Gray) has died at the age of 33. The nation goes into public mourning as they sing "Requiem for Evita.“ Weeping mourners set the scene as Eva Perón’s casket is brought onto the stage silhouetted against a projected still frame of her lifeless body. It is during this opening sequence that we meet the three key performers for the evening.
Ché, our narrator, played by Patrick Rowley, ponders the true motives behind Eva’s charity and her rise from poverty to political aristocracy with “Oh, What a Circus.” Next is her husband, Juan Perón, who is brought to life with military precision by Steve De Forest. And, of course, Eva, played by Ms. Gray, who has had plenty of groundwork in tackling this role with critically acclaimed performances throughout her career, including “The One,” (Marilyn Monroe w/Men Alive) at the Hollywood Bowl and “New York City Rhythm” with Bernadette Peters at Segerstrom Hall.
As the lead role, she is simply captivating throughout the entire production – from the sprightly 15 year old who runs away to Buenos Aires with tango singer Agustín Magaldi (Brigham Hughes - you may remember him as Corny Collins in Hairspray last spring), to the blonde, sophisticated flame of Juan Perón. Mr. Hughes, by the way, has some of the show’s lighter moments portraying Magaldi as he amorously croons “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” – a favorite of mine.
The first act concentrates on Eva’s lust for power, as she slowly but aggressively makes her way to the top of the social ladder. At a time when sexual promiscuity was considered sinful and wretched, watching Eva manipulate various lovers to obtain social power was truly entertaining, especially when coupled with the song “Goodnight and Thank You.”
This rise to stardom results in her colliding with Juan Perón at a charity event, and after seducing him with the promise of becoming an asset to his career (“I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You”), they soon become an item. Maggie Underwood, who exemplifies totally the young mistress of Perón, is both sensual and erotic in the part, but when Eva with little effort dismisses her and shows her the door, the audience develops an affinity for her, particularly when she sings the touching “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
Following an interval, we return to the revelation of Juan Perón’s successful election as Prime Minister, with Eva delivering a powerful speech as the First Lady bedecked in a glittering gown. The second half passes in the blink of an eye, as we witness Eva embark on her renowned ‘Rainbow Tour’ of Europe without her husband, and her resulting ill health. Despite this, she seemingly perseveres with her saintly actions, setting up a charity and literally showering her supporters with money.
This is where Ché truly comes into form – stripping back the glamour that Eva covers herself with.
He painstakingly exposes a woman spurned by political aristocracy who has carefully molded the Argentinean people into supporters for her husband. Somber and lonely, he narrates her life as she tirelessly works to prove herself as a saint not only to Juan Perón and her critics, but to the people of the world. The scenes surrounding her demise and subsequent death are truly heart wrenching. The performances given by both Ms. Gray and Mr. Rowley are harrowingly beautiful as Eva laments for the life she could have lived, had she not pursued fame and glory.
The ensemble (People of Argentina) is first rate and a strong choral support. In addition, ensemble actors double as stage hands as they glide to and fro helping to set up different scenes. From the staging of a military coup using musical chairs during “The Art of the Possible” to the energetic choreography of “A New Argentina,” the cast make use of every inch of the stage. True, the production is with minimal effects and scenery, but that is the beauty of a theatrical piece such as “Evita” – it simply is not needed. Props and lights could never replace what this cast delivers, which is a highly emotional performance guaranteed to resonate with anyone lucky enough to see it. Almost every song is memorable - You could even sense the anticipation and joy in the audience each time Ms. Gray sings “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”
Sound Design is by Dave Mickey, Lighting by Crystal Shomph and Costume Designer is Jojo Siu. Hair and Makeup Supervisor is Laura Hughes and Scenic Designer is Tim Mueller. Congratulations to all cast, crew and directors on a stunning stage achievement!
Evita’s remaining shows begin again this Thursday, May 3rd, 4th, and 5th at 7:30 pm and a matinee May 6th at 2 pm. For direct show information, including a full breakdown of dates, times and online ticket purchasing, visit www.gwctheater.com/evita-april-27-may-6-2018/
Chris Daniels Arts Reviewer