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St. Louis by Richard Green

Evita
New Line Theatre

Also see Sarah's review of My Name is Rachel Corrie

Evita
Todd Schaefer, Taylor Pietz and
John Sparger

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber come in for their fair share of criticism, but future historians may judge them a little more kindly than we now suspect, if this new Evita is any guide. True, we already know that Lloyd Webber can give us lovely musical passages. And here, director Scott Miller's excellent New Line chorus and band, featuring a fiery leading lady, sets our hearts marching into battle for ... well, see? There's the problem: it's a little unclear. We're caught in an ideological labyrinth, not unlike our own today in this country. The Argentineans on stage could be marching for social justice, or for simple iconography, but the dominant thread of the story (by Rice) could easily be described as a stack of sneering editorial page cartoons set to music, up till the final scene. But just then, with the death of Argentina's first lady in 1952, we finally get a glimpse of actual human feeling. And in a strange, elusive way, that also leads us toward the show's most piercing insight of all.

Until then, it's a little like watching "The O'Reilly Factor" or "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," for all the political posing and puncturing that goes on. And this vicious atmosphere also means that (for 99% of the show) we're kept at arm's length from fully appreciating Mrs. Peron's mythic charms until her final, painful death scene. And yet, director Miller makes the cynical wait worthwhile, with a fantastic young woman playing Eva Peron (Taylor Pietz) backed up with a stable of prized stock players.

There are sweeping melodies and rock anthems, sung with beauty and power and perfect control by Ms. Pietz, with John Sparger (as the ghost of Che Guevara) and Zachary Allen Farmer (as the first in a string of jilted lovers). And all their intensity raises our hope for some kind of detailed interplay among the main characters, even as archetypal as they are. Yet even Evita's relationship with her husband (the always outstanding Todd Schaefer) seems hobbled by a defiantly two-dimensional moral landscape where (as President Peron) he can do little more than lend a loving hand to his most valuable asset, his scintillating wife. Because the far stronger bond exists in the relationship between Eva and her acolytes.

So, while we wait for the coven-like magic of the mob to bring Evita fully to life (ironically, in her puppet-like, balletic death scene), Mr. Miller and choreographer Robin Michelle Berger steadfastly entertain, as when Ms. Pietz and Mr. Sparger do a threatening little dance, like darting cobras ("Waltz for Eva and Che"), where character and issue and action and ethnicity are most perfectly blended together. But more importantly, there's a bookending device of a crowd of devoted moviegoers: soon after the show begins, a movie projector is shut off mid-reel and Mrs. Peron's death is announced, causing an extended period of weeping and wailing. Then, two hours later, these same mesmerized individuals are found in the exact same seating arrangement, projecting their own private humanity upon her as her fatal anguish is played out before them, like a three-hankie movie.

For better or worse, Rice and Webber never take the particular politics of the matter very seriously: sure, there are icons of ambition and an icon of cynicism, but no believable icons of poverty, or hopelessness or inequality, beyond the worshipful mob. And why should there be? The show is more universal when the issues are tertiary, at best. Miller does create a sort of proscenium lined with posters to remind us of our own recent would-be icons, though we may never know what single force unifies them all.

And perhaps the nature of rock opera itself brooks little or no introspection. Just as most of the songs race one into another, or into recitative, with little or no breaks for applause, there's also no time for internal conflict or deep reflection in the show. And, in a way that may be clever, that remorseless pacing lulls us into the same state of passive observance as those Argentineans, sitting there hypnotized in that movie theater.

So, the looming question remains: why are people so vulnerable to such blatant manipulation, by icons like Eva Peron or, for that matter, like Sarah Palin? The answer seems to be hidden in that theatrical bookending device itself, with all of those people sitting (together but alone) in the dark. Each one seems to build all of his or her hopes and dreams on some bright flashing images on the screen, instead of on the reality of their own lives. And, combined with Eva Peron's own rise from poverty to splendor, it makes for a shocking conclusion: such icons are born from hubris of the mob.

It's a perfect show for this moment in (North) America.

Through July 31, 2010 at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Rd. Park at the west entrance, a short block east of the Esquire movie theater, on the north side of the street. For information and ticket specials, call Metrotix at (314) 534-1111 or visit them online at www.newlinetheatre.com.

Cast
Eva Peron: Taylor Pietz
Juan Peron: Todd Schaefer
Che: John Sparger
Agustin Magaldi: Zachary Allen Farmer
Peron's Mistress: Terrie Carolan
The People of Argentina: Aaron Allen, Terrie Carolan, Tyla Daniels, Mike Dowdy, Zachary Allen Farmer, Macia Noorman, Jeanitta Perkins, Eeyan Richardson, David Sajewich, Michelle Sauer, Kimi Short, Christopher Strawhun

Artistic Staff
Director: Scott Miller
Assistant Director: Jake Fruend
Choreographer: Robin Michelle Berger
Costume Designer: Thom Crain
Scenic Designer: Todd Schaefer
Lighting Designer: Kenneth Zinkl
Sound Designer: Robert Healey
Stage Manager/Props Master: Trisha Bakula
House Manager: Ann Stinebaker
Box Office Manager: Vicki Herrmann
Lighting Technician: Trisha Bakula
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy

The New Line Band
Piano/Conductor: Chris Petersen
Guitar: D. Mike Bauer
Bass: Dave Hall
Percussion: Clancy Newell
Trumpet: Cliff Phillips
Reeds: Robert Vinson

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg


-- Richard T. Green

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