Review: Ravishing, Technicolored 'Evita' Seduces at ART
Robert Nesti READ TIME: 5 MIN.
Aside from Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, there isn't a more odious couple in musical theater than Eva Duarte and Juan Perón in "Evita," Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's poison pen letter to Eva's brief celebrity in 1940s Argentina. In the sleek, electrifying revival at the American Repertory Theater, Eva seals the alliance with Perón on a huge bed as they sing one of Rice's sardonic observations on the way lovers use each other. It is a telling moment in which their aside illuminates the show's caustic cynicism that sits in contrast with its hagiography.
But it is that mixture of dismissal and idolatry that has always been the riddle of Evita, which premiered in 1978 in an iconic staging by Harold Prince. At its heart is a love story between two toxic, wickedly ambitious individuals; and it is this dimension that is brought to the forefront in Sammi Cannold's impressive revisionist staging. The synergy creates an emotional through-line that is often missing in the starker productions (such as Prince's) that played up the bitter commentary Webber and Rice disperse throughout. Prince's production took place in a huge black box with just accents of red and white, but at the ART Cannold (and her extraordinary design team) drop the story in what looks like a Vincente Minnelli musical from the period, drenched in an ever-changing Technicolor glow thanks to intricate, neon lighting.
That emotional connection may be why this production proves so moving, especially during the final scenes as the unstoppable Eva is stricken with cancer. Shereen Pimentel plays Eva with fierce drive, until she can't, and her breakdown is heart-stopping as the Brechtian format dissolves into touching melodrama. Pimentel is being modest when she sings of bringing just a little touch of star quality to her Eva Duarte – she has more than just a little touch that she displays throughout, but nowhere as effectively than in these plaintiff moments.
But does this emotional connection come at the cost of its more sardonic commentary? That may be the case. Of all modern musicals, "Evita" resembles the work of Brecht and Kurt Weill (think "Threepenny Opera") in its running commentary on Perón's character – was she exploiting her followers (called "descamisados," or "shirtless ones") or was she in solidarity with them? That criticism comes through the character of Che (modeled on Che Guevara) who intrudes the action with pointed criticism, even at one point waltzing with Eva as they sing of her celebrity. Integrating Che into the action has always been the musical's weakest aspect, and it isn't completely solved here, but Omar Lopez-Cepero brings passion to the role and sings it with a ringing belt, most notably in the second act "The Money Keeps Rolling In."
The sketchy characterizations derive in part to the show's origins as a pop cantata – a two-album set in 1976 that told the fascinating story of Perón, an Argentine film star-turned-mistress and wife to General Juan Perón, who seized power after World War II and drained the country resources for his own benefit. Eva was crucial to his success as a Populist leader and her untimely death at the age of 32 in 1952 turned her into a saint. On stage it plays like a Joan Crawford sudser – ambitious small town girl latches onto a tango singer, moves to Buenos Aires, and seduces increasingly powerful men until she meets Perón, and the rest, as they say, is Argentine (and musical theater) history.
The musical does have its built-in showstopper – "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," and here it is a sight to behold. Set in seemingly endless rows of pink and white flowers that surround Eva dressed in the famous white Balenciaga gown. It is a Pierre and Gilles installation come to life – a gorgeous, kitsch backdrop for her anthem of solidarity. Given the perfect conjunction between song and setting, it is impossible not to be seduced.
Eva Perón was always something of a feminist figure, but previous staging and Alan Parker's film with Madonna made Eva a predator, blithely ignoring the misogyny that she faced in her quest for stardom. Cannold rectifies that somewhat, showing that abuse; but still Eva's trajectory is that of a social climber, and she is portrayed as something of a rapacious 1940s influencer, which she was in real-life. Before meeting Perón, she was a fledgling movie actress, but that part of her career is only briefly touched upon. It might be smart to do some research on Eva prior to seeing the show, especially if you haven't seen it before.
Or not, because this "Evita" can be enjoyed for its spectacle and the gorgeous playing of Lloyd Webber's tantalizing, through-sung score. Lloyd Webber has long been shamed for being the face of the big British musical boom of the 1980s, and his scores largely dismissed. "Evita" received very mixed reviews on Broadway and ran more because of audience fascination with the show than its critical acclaim. Perhaps audiences saw something critics didn't – that Lloyd Webber is a deft composer with a gift for melody and pastiche, here heard in his wormholish score filled with echoes of Argentine popular music. Cannold underscores this with the sharp choreography (by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff), including a breathtaking tango that nearly upstages Eva and Juan's love duet, "Amazingly Good For You." "Evita" may be Lloyd Webber's most intoxicating score and is beautifully played here both with the ensemble and the unseen orchestra under the direction of Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh with seamless sound design by Connor Wang.
It is also difficult to underestimate how the stunning visuals make this "Evita" look like a fevered, Hollywood dream-turned-nightmare. Set designer Jason Sherwood uses elements from Prince's production (doorways, beds), plus shrewd use of a hydraulic lift that puts Eva above the crowd, as well as impressively using neon to drench the stage in an endless spectrum of color. Alejo Vietti's period costumes are nicely balanced into the design palette, as is Bradley King's expressive lighting. This "Evita" rethinks this classic show for the 21th century, finding, in its own way, fresh sympathy for this fascinating devil.
"Evita" continues at the American Repertory Theater, through July 30, 2023. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.
Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].