Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1978 musical premiered in London four years after a seemingly unrelated event: when exotic dancer Fanne Foxe (the self-proclaimed Argentine Firecracker) was caught in a tryst with the most powerful U.S. congressman of the time, Wilbur Mills, near the Jefferson Memorial in our own nation's capital.
But any comparison to Evita breaks down right awayfor the highly ambitious non-stripper Eva Duarte refused to be shamed back into obscurity for exploiting her sex, by a disdainful Argentine elite. In fact, she went on to sleep her way to the top, becoming their first lady in the 1940s. Fanne Fox, after her own scandalous behavior in 1974, simply returned to stripping, changing her show-biz title to the "Tidal Basin Bombshell." She seemed sadly unaware of all the possibilities of a romantic brush with power.
There's nothing "sadly unaware" about Evita. In the title role, Ms. Aravena sweeps majestically to become Eva Perón, the wife of a military strongman. The actress even transcends her source material, especially in the middle of act two: there she glides along, like a laughing schoolgirl who's riding a bike with her hands raised high up in the air, completely self-assured and triumphant. How many musicals sag three-quarters of the way through? This one ascends well past cruising altitude just then.
Pepe Nufrio is excellent as the narrator Che, invisibly visiting from the near future, an idealistic rebel to harshly re-examine Eva's legacy, taunting her for her populism (the lives of Eva Perón and Che Guevara did overlap, but he was only about 24 when she died). And of course, it's a great story of politics for our own time, with an unqualified person sweeping to power, playing on popular feelings of grievance and deprivation, while the military and the aristocracy are left to grumble on the sidelines. But don't they know that resistance is futile? If they'd just turn and look at that huge, beaming mural of her face, splashed across the back wall of the stage, they'd know she's unstoppable.
You can tell that Mr. Ruggiero is a splendid director, as every emotion on stage finds its proper dimension, in just two hours' running time. And some of the story is presented on the kicking heels of tango dancers, thanks to Mariana Parma, who's listed as the "tango consultant," alongside choreographer Gustavo Zajac. Her work flares dramatically in the clipped visual contests between General Perón and his rivals. Meanwhile, the nearly operatic style of Mr. Ruggiero's leading lady blends graciously into the ceremonial performances of those around her, especially that of Sean MacLaughlin, excellent as the powerful but populist President Juan Perón.
Of course, the world is full of military strongmen. But there is no single analog in our own politics to Eva Perónyou'd have to stitch together parts of Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to get one Evita. Yet somehow we like her. She's just so cut-and-dried about what she wants (like any main character from a musical), and nothing will stand in her way. And she's always careful to remind the Argentine masses of her lowly beginnings. Handing out pots and pans and sewing machines and bikes to the poor, she seems to have it all figured outright up until that odd moment when pride turns to hubris, and she's insisting on becoming vice president. It's then that the stars of heaven cross in absolute silence, and we see the first signs of the cervical cancer that would kill her at the age of 33.
Of course I should be embarrassed (but I'm not) to say that my greatest familiarity with the show is through "show tunes night" at the big video bars. It's there they play the show's omnipresent theme song, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," sung by Madonna in the 1996 movie, and the crowd shouts back ritualized insults at her. So I can't help but smile here, when the big hit song finally emerges as a solo, sung by Ms. Aravena, high up on the set's ornate golden balcony. Frankly, it's all I can to not heckle exuberantly, once "Don't Cry For Me..." rises up from its usual status as leitmotif. It is the subversive joy of laughing in church.
But Ms. Aravena sings it quite beautifully, of course. And these newer levels of subversion (as a response to our current political situation, and even our love-hate relationship with Madonna) meld brilliantly in the present, heightening the original themes of this 40-year-old show.
Unlike Madonna, however, Ms. Aravena does not have to wrestle us to the ground, insisting we like her. We just can't help it. The actress is so ingratiating, even as she draws her prey in for the kill, again and again. As Che, Mr. Nufrio is smooth and sexy in his rebelliousness, shortly before his own rise to international fame. And Mr. MacLaughlin consistently adds in well-wrought bits of doubt and calculation as the leader of their troubled nation.
"What's your favorite song?" my friend asked, as the lights went down before the show. "There's more than one song?" I almost replied, though it was too late, and the actors were already assembling on stage in the dark. But Nicolas Davila is rich and smooth as the nightclub singer in acts one and two, singing "On This Night of a Thousand Stars," while Shea Gomez does beautifully with "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." And Ms. Aravena is monstrously thrilling in "Rainbow High," being fitted for beautiful gowns (costume designer Alejo Vietti), prior to Eva's tour of European capitols.
Evita, through September 30, 2018, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, on the campus of Webster University, 130 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in order of appearance):
Additional Production Credits: