By: Anita Harris
Back in the early 1980s and then again in the ‘90s after the movie with Madonna came out, it seemed like everyone was singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Musical Theatre West’s production of the Tony Award-winning Evita brings that and each of this musical’s other 24 songs vividly to life, assisted by excellent orchestration and energetic choreography.
Evita’s rags-to-riches story of 1940s Argentine first lady Eva Perón chronicles her ambition for fame as she parlays her success as an actress to becoming wife of a rising politician, helping him achieve position behind the scenes. But while revered by the people for her attention to the poor, we also see her use her office to accumulate wealth as her husband’s government resorts to tactics such as suppression of the press.
This ambivalent “saint or slut” portrait of Eva is conveyed entirely through song. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s varied musical score– ranging from rock to tango to operatic, including a Latin requiem– is accompanied precisely by Tim Rice’s narrativizing lyrics. Richard Bermudez as Che, the story’s narrator and skeptical rabble-rouser, articulates those lyrics clearly in a vigorous tenor, revealing the falsehoods behind Eva’s pious image.
Ayme Olivo as Eva similarly carries her role with aplomb. While her voice easily reaches the sweet and melancholy high notes necessary to convey the events of Eva’s life from a girl of 15 to her death at 33, she especially shines when passionately projecting her voice in such songs as “Rainbow High.” Davis Gaines as Juan Perón complements her with a strong baritone. The pair also physically evoke the Peróns– she as a petite, well-dressed blond (fittingly costumed by Karen St. Pierre) and he with square jaw and combed-back hair.
Supporting these performances, a very enthusiastic 30-member ensemble cast create the political milieu of the Argentine people, their trade unions (whose cause the Peróns champion) and members of the military. A group of cadets in sunglasses is especially striking as they march in unison decrying (with explitives) Eva’s growing influence over Perón and his government. In general, choreography throughout by Hector Guerrero is creative and works seamlessly with the music and story. The orchestra is exactingly led by musical director David Lamoureux, immersing the audience in Lloyd Webber’s robust score. The whole cast, to their credit, match their vocals to the music well.
Video projection (designed by Jonathan Infante) on a large screen at the back of the stage helps establish historical context and mood with images of Buenos Aires, Eva herself and her massive funeral procession. Video is also used to depict the ousting of military generals that allowed Juan Perón to ascend to power. As generals march with soldiers on stage, video projections display crackdowns on dissidents, culminating in a splattering of blood on screen as generals are dispatched one-by-one from the stage below. All in time to the music, of course.
Perhaps this is one of the ways that the production has “imagined a few different, unusual and hopefully compelling ways,” to tell Eva’s story, as director Larry Carpenter describes. The Spanish pronunciation of Argentina with an “h” sound for the g is also different than the original and certainly more authentic.
The beauty of Evita is its distillation of Eva Perón’s life into pivotal moments woven together (more smoothly in the first half than the second) with engaging music and lyrics. We feel for this driven woman both sympathetically and critically as she reminds us all too clearly of the pursuit of power behind politics, as destructive then as now.
Musical Theatre West’s Evita continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton Street, through Feb. 26, with performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm & also 6pm on Feb. 19. Tickets are $17 to $120. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or visit musical.org.