By Philip Pearce
THEATER ON THE MONTEREY PENINSULA says a regretful farewell to the gifted and resilient Gary Bolen with his exciting new MPC Theatre Company production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice blockbuster musical Evita.
Theater groups all around the bay have faced a post-millennial surge of funding cuts and bureaucratic contempt for the arts, but few if any to the extent that Bolen and MPC Theater Arts have faced them since he took over from Peter DeBono in 2013. Yet Bolen and the department have come up with a succession of shows so impressive they suggest that art (like religion) possibly flourishes under persecution! We’ve had such winners as the celebrated Les Miserables, a memorable Oklahoma! and a less lauded but equally wonderful little gem called Almost, Maine. Evita is a worthy successor to those and other fine MPC shows directed by Gary Bolen.
I’ve experienced a fair amount of Andrew Lloyd Webber in my time, but oddly enough, that has not included Evita. So, for me, the forty-year-old script and score and their new embodiment on the Morgan Stock Stage came across as a fresh discovery. The show has pace and precision and a darkly ironic cutting edge. It encourages me in my belief that Lloyd Webber is at his best not in the soaring hydraulics of Phantom or Sunset Boulevard or Starlight Express, but in trenchant musical explorations of 20th century themes with scenery that exists for the sake of the story instead of vice versa. Whether in tandem with Rice or later collaborators like Ben Elton and Christopher Hampton, he shows a gift for social and political comment using metaphors made from familiar but dramatic homegrown ingredients. In The Beautiful Game (2009) the Irish Protestant-Catholic conflict is seen in terms of a Dublin schoolboy soccer team coached by a Catholic priest. In Stephen Ward (2013) a disgraced 1950s Tory politician most of the audience would never have heard of is introduced musically through the lips of his motionless figure in an existing lineup of waxworks in Madame Tousseau’s Museum on Baker Street.
Evita has that kind of pointed urgency. It’s told in a succession of set piece chapters covering the meteoric rise and pathetic decline of Eva Peron as an adored icon of the 1940s Argentine political scene. With no spoken dialogue, the play’s music and recitative make heavy demands on its singer/actors and the MPC cast have the projection and flexibility to meet the challenge.
The celebrated Che Guevera serves as a guide in and around the intricacies of the plot. Rob Devlin gives a powerful performance as the sardonic revolutionary who sees through the surrounding chicanery in a way that sometimes gets him beaten up and hauled off by the political and military authorities he is pillorying. He casts his eye on the subtext of numbers like “Good Night and Thank You,“ where a succession of Eva Duarte’s pre-Peron one-night stands and short-term lovers are dumped through her doorway like pieces of soiled laundry.
Juan Peron’s rise to power is presented in a deliciously comic game of musical chairs played by Peron and five other Argentine generals. It’s the kind of show you need to watch carefully just to catch the ironies in something as familiar as “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina,” with its closing assurance that Eva’s winsome singing of the number guarantees that Every Word is True.
As Eva Duarte Peron, Lara Fern Devlin does full justice to the demanding role of a ruthlessly ambitious working class actress turned dictator. She gives a clear and layered performance, dances well and has a vocal range that effortlessly moves from Evita’s moments of phony histrionic shyness to the icy cruelty with which she gets rid of the nameless woman (a touching if occasionally inaudible Bri Slama) who has dared to precede her in Juan Peron’s bed and attentions.
John Daniel, who used to specialize in amiable boy-next-door heroes, makes a convincingly ruthless and well-sung Juan Peron, and Michael Blackburn is an appropriately pretentious night club pop idol named Magaldi, whom Eva picks up and discards on her way to the top.
As always, Bolen’s direction of a big ensemble with a lot to do is clear and visually strong. Set designer Doug Ridgeway’s single tiled archway provides a shifting backdrop for wheeled in scene units and for the arresting, often mechanistic arrangement and movement of characters. The ensemble shift swiftly and excitingly from military to political to aristocratic social groups interacting with the Perons in their struggle for power. Jake Ottone, Madalena Tourke and Grace Woods of All Saints Day School even provide a brief chorus of middle school innocence as three duped but adoring Argentine school children singing the praises of “Santa Evita.”
Susan Cable’s choreography has the kind of explosive speed and crunch and wit you associate with West Side Story. She confided to me during the intermission that it was the first time she’s had to train dancers to a recorded tape instead of a pit orchestra. I assured her she and the dancers had done an impressive job.
Evita drew a nearly full house on its Thursday preview. It continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 through July 31st.