Evita, Book and lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Allen Phelps. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Juan Peron (Jonathan Mesisca) and Eva Duarte (Joanna Russell) and the Argentine people; photo: Allen Phelps
"You were supposed to have been immortal."
Joanna Russell and Jonathan Mesisca; photo: Allen Phelps
Eva Peron was a movie scenario come to life: a poor girl who became the wife of a South American dictator, a worldwide celebrity, an image of success in an arena that couldn't allow such a thing to happen. Joan Crawford would have played her in the movie. No other film star would have had the panache to pull off such a role. Except, that is, for Eva Duarte Peron in person. In the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, now on stage at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY, no one else but Evita herself can play the role successfully and to do it she has to seduce the world, one man at a time.
One of the most successful musicals of the late 20th century, Evita has won awards in many countries and her principal tune, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" has been sung by vocalists in all genres. Like the movie musicals of the 1930s we hear the song in one form or another so often in the show that it sticks like glue to our memories. In fact, so much of score is repetitious that Webber makes certain we come out singing his score and it isn't until much later that we realize that his songs are not that special, they're just imprinted through frequency.
The current production is blessed with Joanna Russell as Eva. She has a lyrical voice that is compelling and clarion clear. She moves with complete grace and manages to give us a thrilling look at the woman behind the legend. As things go well for her she becomes prettier and more vital and, toward the end when illness overtakes the heroine, we see the deeper side of the South American goddess. Her performance makes this musical so much better than it really is.
There are three principal men in Evita's life and each is so very different from the others. Her main rival for attention is the narrator and political motivator, Che, not truly Che Guevara, but almost always played as though he was that person. In this production he is played by the handsome, vocally talented Ryan Burch. Burch takes this character by storm and gives us the most negative tone in the show as he sings about her rise and fall with cynical and critical overtones in his voice. He is visibly and vocally judgemental and without his negative reactions we would see this story as just another Cinderella tale gone wrong. Burch does a fine job here in a thankless role and his counterpoint to the optimism of Russell's Evita is most welcome.
Jonathan Mesisca is Peron himself. His is charismatically good looking without being cloyingly handsome. He sings the role with conviction, although of the three men his is the least effective singing voice. He manages the romantic vision of the dictator well and he projects that charismatic necessity to the part. It is easy to find in his performance a semblance of the man Eva Duarte conquered and kept as her own touchstone of success.
Her first lover, the singer Magaldi, is played here by Daniel Hurst. He is blessed with a romantic appearance singing the best song in the score, "On This Night of a Thousand Stars," which serves as a grand setup for the sound of the era, the sound of the place and an inspiration for Eva Duarte to take charge of the world around her. Hurst makes an art of the seduction of the young girl who will use his star to suspend herself over a country. They are mutual partners in the accidental rise to fame of the peasant who became a film star and then a country's image of itself. His performance is, as always for this role, too short to be completely satisfying but Hurst makes him very memorable.
Eva and Che (Ryan Burch); photo: Allen Phelps
Shelly Farmer as Peron's Mistress; photo: Allen Phelps
In the small role of Peron's mistress, Shelly Farmer is most effective sharing the most interesting lyric of the show with Eva, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." She is the truly overlooked character in this show and Farmer makes the most of her opportunity to shine.
In a show that is almost entirely sung-through it is a pity that the worst lyric is almost the most often heard: the song "Buenos Aires" repeats and repeats and repeats the refrain "B.A. Buenos Aires. Big Apple." until you could almost vomit it. In spite of a wonderful melody if that song were five minutes shorter the show would be five times better. Aside from not being able to cut it, however, director Allen Phelps has made a large company on a fine set by Abe Phelps perform a world-class production of this show. He has provided insights into the history of Eva Peron by holding a magnifying glass up to her world on the small stage at the Theater Barn. He has an excellent company of singer/dancer/actors to take on the small parts and they provide a perfectly period appearance, dancing in Rockettes precision and moving across the stage in a mock balletic manner. Phelps has been ably assisted in all this by the fine work of choreographer Vincent Ortega. Ortega's dances are lovely especially the visualizations of the songs performed by Michael Luongo and his partners.
This is a wonderful production of a show, with excellent costumes by Shimra Jamie Fine and fine lighting by the director, that has no satisfactory outcome. Its ending, spoken, is a defeat of all that the plot would celebrate. As a picture of the outcome of celebrity's power it is without parallel, but as a musical it has no real ending, neither a happy one or an unhappy one. It is no "West Side Story," no "Cinderella." If life is what you crave in your musicals, "Evita" is one you should see.
Evitaplays through September 6 at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.