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Theater review: 'Evita'

Innovative production offers fresh take on “Evita” at Asolo Rep.

The cast of Asolo Rep's production of "EVITA" performs. Photo by Cliff Roles
The cast of Asolo Rep's production of "EVITA" performs. Photo by Cliff Roles
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In 1971, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice made a joyful noise on Broadway with “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The Messiah is a tough act to follow. But the duo returned with “Evita” in 1976. Their musical explored the rise and fall of Argentina’s self-appointed Madonna — Eva Perón, aka Evita, the charismatic wife of President Juan Perón.

The Asolo Rep is bringing Evita’s improbable story to life in a lush, freshly imagined production. Beneath the flash and filigree, the narrative is still as sharp as a new machete.

The mind behind “Jesus Christ Superstar” is clearly the mind behind “Evita.” Rice’s cynical, political savvy sees through the pretty lies of official history like an X-Ray machine. With “Evita,” Rice revisits the obsessions of “Superstar,” including the cult of personality, extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. It’s all about the toxic effects of worship to the person on the pedestal.

“Evita” explores the calculated ascent of Eva Duarte, a talented, smart kid from a poor Argentinian village who used her looks and talent to get the hell out of there and go straight to the top. After a brief stint in radio, Evita (Ana Isabelle) hitches her wagon to a tango star (Victor Souffrant), and then draws the eye of Perón, (Nick Duckart) who's just another Argentine Colonel at the time. But Evita’s a far better chess player. And she uses her grasp of strategy and 200-proof charisma to make him President Perón. After he marries her, of course.

Hagiography is always a danger with a larger-than-life figure like Evita. But Rice’s libretto pokes a pin in her saintly balloon from the beginning. The musical has a built-in critic: none other than Che Guevara. (Argentina’s most well-known idol until “Evita” came along.) He’s the musical’s worldly-wise narrator, gadfly and conscience. (And possibly a stand-in for Tim Rice.)

Che’s sarcastic jabs imply the stings of Evita’s uneasy conscience as she buys her stairway to heaven. What does it profit a diva to gain the world but lose her soul? That’s the unspoken question.

Ana Isabelle acts in Asolo Rep's production of
Ana Isabelle acts in Asolo Rep's production of "EVITA." Photo by Cliff Roles

Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes has his own X-Ray vision. He dives right into the tension (and intention) of the musical from the very first scene.

A working class crowd watches one of Evita’s old (bad) movies. The film stops. They hear news of her death. And weep from the depths of their souls. “Santa Evita!” they chant. Then, like a saint from heaven, Evita immediately descends in billowing, white robes. Che (Justin Gregory Lopez) quickly appears to tell us she’s no saint, and the musical reboots to the start of Evita’s climb in 1944.

Right away, you know what’s at stake. This is more than a war for Evita’s soul. It’s a war for the soul of Argentina.

After that, the musical hits the ground running. Sparks fly between Che and Evita. Thanks to Rhodes’ shorthand, it’s more than sound and fury. You get the point.

Rhodes brings the same clarity to his choreography. It’s never spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Each dance number tells a story or clarifies a story point. Rhodes has his eye on the ball.

The actors do a fine job with a densely packed, fast-moving story. Here are some highlights from the large-cast production:

To play a character with charisma, you need some of your own. Ana Isabelle (a popular Puerto Rican singer and actress) has it — and then some. She brings a raw authenticity to her role. (As opposed to, say, Madonna.) Argentina’s elite hated Evita’s brown skin; the common people loved what they hated. But authenticity is more than ethnicity.

Nick Duckart and Ana Isabelle perform in Asolo Rep's production of
Nick Duckart and Ana Isabelle perform in Asolo Rep's production of "EVITA." Photo by Cliff Roles

Isabelle evokes the soul of a real person who’d lost herself in an unreal image. (Like the Wizard of Oz, Evita is the Woman Behind the Curtain putting on the big show of her public self.) It’s a subtle, nuanced performance. Nick Duckhart’s Juan Perón is the Darrin Stevens of dictators. The man has no fire. Without Evita’s mojo, he’d still be a Colonel. Victor Souffrant embodies the disposable tango singer with unflappability worthy of Kevin Klein. (“Evita has used me as stepping stone. Ah well. Such is life.”) Gizel Jimenez is wounded and sympathetic as the exceedingly young mistress Evita sent packing from Perón’s palace. Tango dancers Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia have a surreal grace as they dance through the ups and downs of history. And last, but not least …

Justin Lopez finds a new take on the musical’s Che character. He’s not the full-blown icon — a Paul Davis poster come to life. He’s not a battle-tested guerilla strategist, either. Lopez’ Che is just a kid. (Only 16-years-old when Evita starts her climb.) In the “real world” of the musical’s street actions, he’s a smartass punk with a big mouth. Buenos Aires’ brown-shirt thugs can beat him with impunity, and they know it. Nobody’s watching Che’s back. (You can imagine Che’s fierce intelligence brooding as he takes the blows. One day, he’ll be running the show. Today, he’ll get started on his enemy’s list.) It’s the first performance of “Evita” I’ve seen where Che feels like a real character, not just a narrative device. Kudos.

Related: The Observer's music review of 'Evita'

The technical team behind the production is also first-rate. Paul Miller’s lighting is cinematic, not realistic—like the saturated colors of a Vincente Minnelli romance. Brian C. Hemesath’s costume design has the same filmic implausibility. This isn’t a documentary; it’s a bio-pic. A movie in somebody’s mind.  Paul Tate DePoo III’s versatile set has a lot of moving parts, including a giant stairway on wheels and the revolving doors of unhappy, jilted bachelors. His design aptly evokes Buenos Aires as a New World colonial city with Spanish influences. Thanks to DePoo’s quick-change artistry, the set morphs from a grungy slum to a palace courtyard in a matter of seconds.

The cast of Asolo Rep's production of
The cast of Asolo Rep's production of "EVITA" performs. Photo by Cliff Roles

Musical director Sinai Tabak does a nice job with the hard-driving unseen orchestra.

Technical excellence aside, what’s the takeaway?

It’s a dazzling production. So dazzling, I had repeated attacks of cognitive dissonance. Like admiring the clean-cut athletes in an old black-and-white documentary from the 1930s and realizing I’m looking at “The Triumph of the Will.”

It’s not an immoral musical, don’t get me wrong. “Evita” has abundant moral lessons. Power is a Faustian bargain. Don’t sell your soul. Don’t trust the public face of politicians. Be careful what you wish for.

And that seems to be the big one.

A revolutionary seeking power has the same problem as a dog chasing a car. What do you do if you actually get it?

Che was a communist. Evita was a populist.

In the end, they both had the same problem.



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