As the story goes, when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber first sent his original recording of the Evita songs to Hal Prince to get the producer involved, Prince responded, “Any musical that begins with a funeral can’t be all bad.” And so the show has proven in its thirty-eight years. The new production at Olney Theatre Center deserves our attention much more than “not all bad,” and chiefly because the show has been retooled not for stars the like of Patti LuPone, who dominated the show on Broadway, but for an ensemble that swirls around Evita and whose singing and dancing are just terrific.
Especially notable in its time was the creators’ experiment of making the story of Argentina’s Eva Perón into a rock opera. Out with spoken scenes completely, Webber and his long-time lyricist Tim Rice stitched together “arias” and ensemble numbers with any necessary dialogue driven by a ramped up pulsing beat pushing song into rock screech (Eva) or growl (Che.)
It’s not an easy show to sing, especially for the Eva Perón character. LuPone complained of having to scream her way through the part “that could only have been written by a man who hates women.” In the Olney production, Rachel Zampelli starts with a voice amped so brashly trenchant I thought she might shatter the lights in the theatre. Her take at the start defies us to like this character. With nerves of steel and an ambition to match, the young Eva uses whoever comes into her orbit to get to the next rung of her swift climb to the top. There’s nothing, at first, in Zampelli’s voice or in her manner that seems appealing.
Curiously, however, just as Zampelli, later in the show, brings more colors vocally to the role, so she takes us on a journey to understand the woman’s desire to matter just as much as her hunger for power. We begin to see the appeal to poor Argentinians of this woman who symbolizes a rise from having nothing to being able to live high and grab everything.
This certainly explains the obsessive fury of Che, the man who wants us all to see the horrible truth behind the cult devotion to the illegitimate street urchin, second-rung actress, and greed-driven political opportunist. Che is meant to portray, I believe, a revolutionary similar to Che Guevara, a character plucked from another era and his own legendary status. Here, Che acts as a narrator and chorus, guiding us through an historic perspective on Eva’s story. He is at first a champion of the woman, but later the moral voice who speaks out against her corruption.
Robert Ariza makes a totally believable Che with his wiry frame and coiled energy reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, telegraphing that this watchdog never sleeps. His singing can get that authentic rock gravel in “The Lady’s Got Potential” to the bitter bite with which he builds his case in the second act in songs like “And the Money kept Rolling In.”
Nick Duckart on the other hand is as suave and liquid-voiced as they come, and as Juan Perón, he is marvelous. His character tramples everyone around him to become president and who has a kind of Lady Macbeth partner in Eva. But there are some nuances and even tender moments in this man’s portrayal. He is brought up short and is transfixed, when he first meets Eva, where she seems so forward and unapologetic about her vision for him (which includes her.) Towards the end of her short run in power (she dies of cancer seven years into their “reign”) he sings of the light going out in her eyes and walks over to where she is sitting literally holding herself from screaming in pain. These two don’t know how to be soft, but his awkwardness standing beside her, touching her, is moving, and you can see his longing and his helplessness.
Jamie Eacker brings a beautiful sound and memorable moment to the production as Perón’s mistress in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Jonathan Atkinson, as the sleazy provincial singer Magaldi, provides some much needed humor to the show, holding his notes and rolling his r’s longer than anyone should be allowed to do in “On this Night of a Thousand Stars.”
As I mentioned, the real star of this production is the chorus, and specifically the way the members pull off the dance numbers of choreographer Christopher d’Amboise (Colossal). The guy knows how to etch movement and gesture to tell a story and convey both mood and period. Megan Adrielle, Jonathan Atkinson, Ronald Bruce, Mark Chandler, Willie Dee, Jamie Eaker, Ashleigh King, Nick Lehan, Nurney, Maria Rizzo, Kristin Yancy, and Jane Zogbi need to be recognized for gelling into an exceptional ensemble.
EXTENDED! Closes July 31, 2016
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Vocally, this able group moves nimbly between the eclectic musical palette that Webber has incorporated. From the first moment where the chorus sings a classical Requiem, you can hear the authority of Youstra’s orchestrations and the company’s blended sound. Suddenly we are plunged into straight four-four rock (“Oh What a Circus”) then almost immediately into Latinate dance rhythms (“Buenos Aires.”) And so the show just keeps popping along under Youstra’s musical direction.
The stage is stripped of most elements to let the song and dance carry the story. Even the iconic balcony where Eva traditionally sings the big number of the show, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” has been jettisoned. Instead, Zampelli moves the standing mic even further downstage as if she can’t get close or intimate enough with the audience. She gave us in the audience almost a sly wink and then let’s us have it, making her “Cry” her own. By this time, the villainous heroine has us eating out of her hand and becoming all dewy-eyed to boot.
Director Will Davis and Set Designer Arnulfo Maldonado have conspired to give us the world of Eva Perón in a single set, represented by a large upstage wall with a bank of windows that could be a dance hall in Argentina where the story is being retold by barrio dancers conjured by Che.. Or perhaps the set represents a hall in the palace where Eva Perón’s ghost lingers. Either way it works.
Colin K. Bills has lit the show beautifully, moving between a bright flamingo glow for the upbeat scenes to the darkness of the funerals which act as bookends to the show. The last image with the stage covered in flowers and candles makes a glowing and powerful final impression.
Costuming Eva challenges designers to come up in style to the original iconic designs made for the real Eva by Dior and other European fashion luminaries. Ivania Stack more than meets the challenge. The green gold floor length ball gown in which Zampelli sings Eva’s biggest number is less a dress than a Frank Gehry piece of architecture and is superb.
There have been other “queens of mean” on stage. (Just this last spring, Tovah Feldshuh starred in a couple of readings of a new musical with that very title about Leona Helmsley by Alex Lippard, David Lee, and Ron Pissaro.) But let’s face it, no one else has so held our attention or stood the test of time as provocateur and controversial figure as Eva Perón.
The timing couldn’t be better to consider the truth behind charismatic figures whose promises to deliver quick solutions and prosperity for everyone bear no relation to the complexities of reality. Olney Theatre Center has given us a show to rethink what such a figure could do if able to grab the spotlight and the reins of power today.
Evita. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Will Davis . Music Direction and Orchestrations by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Christopher d’Amboise. Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume Design by Ivania Stack. Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills. Sound Design by Lane Elms. Featuring Megan Adrielle, Robert Ariza, Johnathan Atkinson, Ronald Bruce, Mark Chandler, Willie Dee, Nick Duckart, Jamie Eacker, Ashleigh King, Nick Lehan, Nurney, Maria Rizzo, Kristin Yancy, Rachel Zampelli, and Jane Zogbi. Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith