THE RISE AND FALL of Eva Peron was a small but fascinating piece of 20th century history. It became part of western pop culture when her rags to riches story, set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice, was a sold-out hit of the 1978 London theater season. A Broadway transfer earned the first Tony Award ever given to a foreign-born musical. If you missed all of that—or even if you didn’t—you shouldn’t miss the explosive and glorious new production of Evita now on view at The Western Stage in Salinas.
Visually and musically, this Evita fills the big main stage with four strong lead performances and a swiftly choreographed pattern of ensemble movement that is little short of dazzling.
Malinda DeRouen is slick and powerful in a performance of the title role that changes her from an Argentine country girl with big ambitions and a will of steel to a political superstar hailed by adoring multitudes (“She’s a Diamond”) as a national saint. Maegan Roux’s impressive costume design and the work of an eight-member hair and make-up team signal the stages in a rise to political notoriety via show biz fame that is all too familiar these days. It’s fascinating to watch the brunette frizz and sexy skirt of the pushy teen-aged Evita morph step by step into the smooth honey blonde outlines of a fashionable celebrity.
First rung on her ladder to the stars is getting out of the Argentine boondocks and into a big city she’s convinced she’ll take by storm (“Buenos Aires”) if she can just find a guy with the cash and show biz contacts to get her there. A touring tango- dancing nightclub tenor named Magaldi turns up and seems to fit the bill. Played with energy and his usual vocal skill by Jared Hussey, he comes armed with a lot of smarmy charm and a killer theme-song (“On the Night of a Thousand Stars”). Reluctant at first (“Eva, Beware of the City”) Magaldi gives in and agrees to take Eva along on his return trip to the capital. Once there, she predictably dumps him and starts hunting bigger game.
Notably, a rising military star with ambitions to match her own. Jeff Hinderscheid brings a strong voice and a commanding presence to the role of Juan Perón. He’s all affability and military dash on the surface, all ruthless upward push on the inside. In a hilarious number (“The Art of the Possible”) Juan and other members of a secret military junta plotting a coup confront each other in a spit-and-polish game of musical rocking chairs. One by one, colonel by colonel, they lose their seats and are rough-housed into the wings till only Perón and one uneasy cohort are left. Incisive lyrics plus slickly organized direction and acting made this, for me, the comic high point of the opening night performance.
Having charmed the swaggering Juan on a Buenos Aires dance floor, Eva ties him down for life in his bedroom, from which she first ejects the previous occupant who is only cast listed as “Perón’s mistress.” Sarah Horn plays this cameo with a quiet assurance that proves she can sing as well as dance to Megan Tan’s choreography. Her number (“Another Suitcase in Another Hall”) adds a brief, welcome note of pathos to the hurried clamor of Act I.
The irony of it all is underlined by the powerful presence and icy commentary of no less than Che Guevara, played by the assured and gifted Justin Gaudoin. His performance is enhanced by a striking physical resemblance to photographs of the iconic political rebel. Lloyd Webber and Rice present him as the splash of cold water that repeatedly washes away the hubris and pretense behind the Peróns’ political wheeling and dealing. Early in the action, he speaks only to the audience and occasionally to the adoring mobs of Perón supporters and, possibly only through them, to Eva herself. But he never meets the lady face-to-face until their two philosophies finally go to war (“A Waltz for Eva and Che”), an extended dream fantasy Eva undergoes when she is dying of cancer near the end of the play.
But, significant as they are, it’s not the men in her life who ultimately tip the scales in the life of Evita. It’s the people, the crowds, the mobs she must mold and manipulate into a base of voters who will determine, pro or con, whether she succeeds. The ensemble of this production are just as important as the named characters. In Evita’s early struggles for name recognition, they shout her praises and wave “Viva Evita” signs on poles. When she dresses up fancy and launches an overseas tour, they become foreign groups assessing, not always in flattering terms, her efforts to impress Europe with South American culture and haute coutour. When she reacts to Che’s sardonic claims that she’s a populist politician who ignores the poor and needy, Eva forms a splashy Perón charity and the ensemble pushes forward a children’s choir who accept handouts and pipe out her praises in the hymn-like anthem (“Santa Evita”). It’s the top virtue of this admirable show that director Joanne Gordon and the whole production team have grasped the importance of mobs and factions and congregations and trained an ensemble who are never a coordinated company of cloned singers/dancers but continue to form themselves into a shifting, varied and central element of Eva Perón’s political dreams.
The music from Don Dally and a sixteen member orchestra is strong and persuasive, suiting their sound to the forward pressure of the plot but sometimes, at least to me, threatening well-balanced audibility. I discovered however that it was my fault, not the orchestra’s. Western Stage caters sympathetically to my geriatric hearing with season tickets for down-front seating. Great for straight plays, but for musicals they tend to drown in brass and percussion. It’s a question of geography. From my up- close vantage point I got a perfectly clear idea of the basic story but missed some of the specific details in a musical with virtually no spoken dialogue. After the intermission, I sneaked into an empty seat eight rows higher and heard everything loud and clear.
It’s well worth listening to and watching and continues through December 7th, with an Audience Talk-Back Q & A Session with cast and creative team after the Sunday November 24th matinee.