Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Los Angeles Associate Critic
Throughout the opening night performance of Musical Theatre West's latest revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice fact-based bio musical EVITA, you can hear a few audible quirks from audience members now and again. Some chuckle, while some let out an agreeable "uh-huh" when a particularly pointed lyric or situation comes to light.
They are certainly heard during many moments during the show when certain questionable activities of the then Argentine President and his more infamous wife are displayed, alongside the populace's immovable adoration toward them. They are heard when various military men and wealthy snobs are seen gossiping. They are are heard when protest signs are hoisted up high.
Actually, a lot of scenarios in the musical seem a little too, uh, familiar—considering the current political climate of our own nation today.
The timing is coincidental, yes, but message-heavy and political-centric musicals, particularly EVITA, seem to be ever so much more relevant when looking at them again through the lens of a new, more volatile world.
That was certainly top of mind when taking in MTW's latest regional offering of the Tony Award-winning musical, now continuing performances at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach through February 26. Still iconic and striking, the show—under the direction of Larry Carpenter—may feel slightly dated, but can still resonate and pack a punch when it comes to its themes and musical prowess. Of course, it always helps when the show casts three strong actors to render the lead roles to near perfection.
Playing the title role with palpable ferocity and undeniable talent, Ayme Olivo looks and sounds terrific as Eva Perón. She valiantly conquers some of those original Patti LuPone high notes and certainly captivates each time she appears—a good sign for your lead. As Che, the musical's narrator and conscience, Richard Bermudez brings belt-tastic power vocals to the role that will grab your attention every time (after seeing him in Moonlight Amphitheater's production of TITANIC The Musical and now this, I now consider myself a fan). Also on hand is Broadway PHANTOM vet Davis Gaines, who peppers his portrayal of Juan Perón with a very subtle bit of folksy aloofness that I actually appreciated for a change of pace (the characterization certainly makes sense to why such a powerful man would be okay having his woman call lots of shots at his job).
Along with the rest of the ensemble—particularly Zachary Ford (who plays Eva's first paramour Magaldi) and Ashley Marie (who plays Perón's rejected mistress who sings a lovely "Another Suitcase in Another Hall")—the actors for this production definitely elevates the production.
The story, of course, tracks the rather short lifespan of one Eva Duarte, an initially poor but driven young woman who manipulates and schemes her way to a better lifestyle. She first seduces Magaldi, a traveling singer, convincing him to whisk her off from her modest rural surroundings to the big city of Buenos Aires. Once she arrives, she becomes quite the fierce social climber, becoming a radio/film actress after jumping from one man to the next to help elevate her status.
One evening, while being escorted by her latest beau—a military man—Eva meets Colonel Perón. The two are instantly attracted to one another: he appreciates her stunning beauty, she appreciates his eloquence as an up and coming player in the Argentinian political stage. Eva's a cunning one, naturally, recognizing Perón's talents early and helps position him towards success at every turn (he's not so innocent himself, he soon recognizes Eva's savviness for politics too).
While their coupling is looked upon with suspicion from the high-brow upper class and the military, the two continue to rise in stature, catering to the demands and cheers of the poorest of Argentina—who are instrumental in helping Perón win the Presidency.
Alas, the power couple's questionable rule bathed in luxury and influence is short-lived due to Eva's rapid decline in health. She dies, of course, adored by most of the population who see her as their empathetic savior.
First produced in the West End in 1978 followed by a Broadway debut a year later, EVITA remains a classic piece of musical theater. The 2012 Broadway revival certainly refreshed the musical for 21st Century audiences, even incorporating the Oscar-winning song from the 1996 film adaptation into it seamlessly. That splendid production (and its subsequent national tour) felt lively, fiery and even a little sassy.
MTW's production, on the other hand, harks back reverently to its original roots—and it shows a bit. While the production certainly retains the original intent dutifully, the production lacks a bit of the visual punch that the revival improved and refreshed. While the staging feels genuinely updated, the sets do not. The structures certainly get the job done, but are slightly bland and too uniform. Also, the musical doesn't really get its momentum going until Eva's arrival in Buenos Aires, so everything before feels a bit subdued in comparison.
These are all minor gripes, to be honest, because this regional revival on the whole is still quite an exceptional, full-bodied production—particularly in its musicality.
The still gorgeous, sweeping score—performed under the baton of musical director David Lamoureux—sounds as majestic as ever. When Olivo sings "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina"—adorned like an exquisitely dressed princess in Karen St. Pierre's beautiful costume design—it is a stunner, especially with the grandiose accompaniment of the production's pit orchestra. Hector Guerrero's fancy footwork with the choreography (particularly in "Buenos Aires," "And the Money Kept Rolling In") is also worth noting for its high energy and innovation.
Emotionally powerful and eerily prophetic, EVITA's timely arrival at MTW is worth checking out, not only for its wonderful music but also for its vocal diversity, and, its relatable subject matter. In a way it’s a history lesson in need of revisiting in such uneasy times.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West. Review also published in OnStage.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of EVITA continue through Sunday, February 26, 2017 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. EVITA is performed at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.