Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Young Frankenstein
Often, musicals that are part of the Mainstage Series at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) are old-fashioned classics. For this season, however, two fairly modern shows are being presented, and both are Tony Award winners. Rent will be presented this winter, and currently onstage is Evita. This piece by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice is given a fairly traditional staging by CCM, but with enough distinctive directorial choices and wonderfully thrilling performances to make it a standout production.
Evita explores the historical life and times of Eva Peron, wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. The show emphasizes Eva's unbridled ambition and follows her rise from poverty to celebrated saint of a nation as wife of the President. The narrator, Che, comments and criticizes Eva and her actions throughout the show, and explains the social and political impact of her ascent.
The musical is a pop/rock-opera, with no dialogue and told entirely through song. While Webber and Rice had previously used this format successfully for Jesus Christ Superstar, it was with Evita that their collaboration fully blossomed. Their score is highly theatrical and perfectly suited to the gripping story. Webber succeeds musically with the beautiful "High Flying Adored," the fast-paced "Buenos Aires" (showing Eva's arrival to the big city), and, of course, the famous "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," among others. Rice's biting and efficient lyrics are best on display in "Good Night and Thank You," where Eva quickly dispenses of consecutive lovers once she has used them to move up the social ladder; the comical "Rainbow Tour"; and "And The Money Kept Rolling In", Che's angry account of Eva and Juan's financial raping of the country.
In general, Director Aubrey Berg employs a traditional approach to the material in line with the original work done by Broadway director Harold Prince. However, Mr. Berg infuses a number of unique alternatives to make the presentation of several songs seem fresh and vibrant. In particular, "And the Money Kept Rolling In," Eva's entrance at the beginning of act two, and the staging of "The Art of the Possible" are interesting and different. "The Art of the Possible," which chronicles the power struggle and eventual rise of Juan Peron in the Argentine military, was staged by Mr. Prince as a game of musical chairs. CCM Director Berg instead shows various games, such as thumb wrestling, paper/rock/scissors and tug of war, effectively to show the same struggle. This Evita has more dancing than typical, and features crisp, setting-appropriate, and dynamic choreography by Patti James (maybe her best work to date). Jesse Kissel capably leads a precise and talented 35-piece orchestra.
As Eva, Alaina Mills captures the ambition, cut-throat ruthlessness, and determination of the character, and sings the role with an impressive belt and vocal clarity. Pierce Cassedy displays the necessary frustration and anger of narrator Che, and sings the role within a passionate, pop-influenced style well suited to the role. Chris Blem is solid vocally as Juan Peron, and shows the stately yet manipulative side of the dictator aptly. John Riddle nicely walks the fine line between cheesy and grounded as night-club singer Magaldi. The ensemble does an excellent job vocally, and impeccably executes the many challenging dances.
The scenic design by Thomas C. Umfrid is extremely varied, incorporating a back wall decorated with several photographs of the real-life main characters, as well as hundreds of projections. Like the set design, the multifaceted lighting by Samantha Spiro is more theatrical than atmospheric, but both approaches are in line with the conceptual structure of the show. The costumes by Reba Senske are attractive and appropriate to time and place.
Evita possesses a strong score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and an interesting structure for its storytelling. CCM's production is extremely well-performed, solidly designed and directed, and features some splendid choreography. CCM's production ran from November 17 - 21, 2010.-- Scott Cain