Evita: Sainthood For Some, A Musical For All
Few people are called to sainthood, fewer have it conferred upon them while living, fewer still are able to evoke it while still breathing. Yet, Evita Duarte de Perón, the poor girl from the Argentine Pampas, rose to stardom, ascended to the seat next to Argentina’s president, Juan Perón, and levitated to the ultimate saint, complete with cult, cadaver, and catechism.
And now, her story commands the stage as a mesmerizing musical icon in Sam Woodhouse’s ambitious staging of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved musical with lyrics by Tim Rice about the “First Lady of Argentina.” It’s a beautiful revival with a set well stocked with subtext and performances that run from the unexpectedly sublime to the slightly shrill. Nonetheless, it’s a gorgeous show, rising to splendid heights when Evita (Marissa Matthews) commands the stage in “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
As a musical, “Evita” explores the myth and the magnitude of the woman who would be Argentina. Despised as a “gold-digger,” by that other famous Argentine, the writer Jorge Luis Borges, and beloved by the nameless “decamisados,” the working class…which Evita shows up on stage?
In Woodhouse’s ‘Evita,” with musical staging by Javier Velasco and musical direction by Andrew Beardon, a little of both, minus some context.
Eva Duarte (Marissa Matthews), born into poverty and illegitimacy, slipped her limitations and moved to Buenos Aires supposedly on the coattails of the popular singer Magaldi (the dynamic Victor Chan) at the age of 15. As an actress, singer, and radio personality, Eva had developed quite a following, earning her the affectionate nickname of Evita. By the time she died at 33 of cancer, she had caught the eye of the powerful Colonel Juan Perón (Jason Maddy), married him, and ascended to the presidential palace with Perón as president. During her short time by Perón’s side, Evita is credited with working with Perón to create universal social security, assisting struggling families, and fighting for women’s suffrage.
But within the musical, there are hints at the cracks in Evita’s façade. After a brief stint as his mistress, Eva marries Perón, and starts her ascension to the presidential palace, dispensing benevolence and chastisement as she goes. (Perón imprisoned Borges’ mother and brother in an effort to silence the writer’s criticism). As she ascends, Che (Jeffery Ricca), comments on her actions, and as her power among the poor grows, he runs an ever-increasingly critical counterpoint to her canonization.
Marissa Matthews is a powerful if somewhat hyper Evita, probably one of the hardest roles to sing in the American musical repertoire. Matthews’ energy is stunning, keeping up with the fast-paced “Buenos Aires,” in which Eva Duarte envisions her move to Buenos Aires to the desperate longing of Evita’s Final Broadcast- “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” But all that energy needs to be tempered with the charm Evita was known for. Reviled as a social climber by some, worshipped by others, Evita was known for a presence that dazzled even her critics as they accused her of proto-fascism (ruthless with enemies, she courted alliances with Franco and Mussolini).
Countering Evita, and providing a slightly sarcastic commentary is Ricca’s Che, played with barely restrained energy and frustration. Woodhouse and Ricca have wisely chosen not to paste the iconography of Che Guevara (also an Argentine), on the character, the movie version not withstanding. There are hints in Rice’s lyrics that the character is based on the revolutionary, but ‘Che” in Argentine Spanish is equivalent to “buddy” or an interjection, and as here, Che stands in for the Argentinian Everyman. With that in mind, Ricca’s powerful vocals would be richer if his Che had a bit more nuance in his presence.
Standing between them is the quietly powerful performance of Jason Maddy as Juan Perón, the colonel who becomes populist president. Maddy’s Perón provides a quiet foil to Che, and anchoring Evita, especially in his turning point duet with her, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You,” foreshadowing both their love and mutual shaping of each other’s destinies. However, Maddy’s choice of an accent is a bit of a puzzle since no other character uses a “Spanish” accent- if the idea is to distinguish the patrician Perón from the low-born Evita, then there are plenty of accents in English to underline that difference.
Of special note is Victor Chan as Magaldi- Evita’s first lover- his tango inflected performance of “On This Night Of A Thousand Stars” is masterful and one of the best pieces in the production. Another notable moment is the surprisingly touching “Santa Evita” led off by the gorgeously pure voice of young newcomer Viviana Peji, and joined by the ensemble.
Also, the ensemble and Dance Captain Michelle Camaya Julian are deserving of special notice for the beautiful choreography and its excellent execution.
Sean Fanning’s set design and Blake McCarty’s projections provide the production with some beautiful visuals and deeper subtext- which work well in the Rep’s space. The set has some very versatile moving pieces which work with Jennifer Brawn Gitting’s costumes to underline Evita’s working class support and visually make clear the disconnect between her official self-identity with the masses and her need to dress the part of the Saint dressed for the people. McCarty’s projections are brilliant, adding a significant depth to the visuals with his combination of footage, Eva Duarte’s film work, and reworked footage.
“Evita” is a challenge as a show- which Evita to emphasize- the social climbing Magdalene, the not so Poor Claire of the People? Woodhouse chooses to walk a middle road, with almost hagiographic notes in the program. But the Peróns are not without their problems. Rice and Webber fleshed out “Evita” as Argentina’s Dirty War (when the ruling junta rooted out and disappeared thousands of Argentines for real and imagined socialist and communist sympathies) was wreaking havoc. During Perón’s first and second presidency, those who displeased the Peróns in the universities and the unions were jailed, forced into exile, or physically attacked. Perón also planted the seeds (knowingly or unknowingly) for some of the practices of the Dirty War (echoed in the US in recent events), by granting haven to Nazis such as Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and members of the dreaded Croatian Ustaše. Although Perón died in 1974, and his third wife, Isabel Perón, took over the presidency, the philosophies of the protected Nazis reached their ultimate expression in the Death Squads of the Junta and the hidden prisons and the killing fields scattered around Evita’s beloved Buenos Aires.
These, too, are part of the subtext of the show, and while very, very subtly hinted at in the Rep’s production, it is not clear if their inclusion is accidental or placed with a purpose.
Nonetheless, the Rep’s “Evita” is a beautifully mounted, musically exciting show, a promising beginning for a season running during an equally challenging political era in which the various messages of “Evita” and the Peróns have a curious resonance.
‘Evita” continues through August 27. Please see http://sdrep.org for times and ticket pricing.
Photo: Daren Scott