Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Echoes
Ana Isabelle, already a successful recording artist with three successful albums on the Billboard Latin chart, is a find for the role of Eva Perón. She has the vocal chops to do full justice to the role's demands, and contributes a stunning acting performance as well. In act two, as the character weakens from the cancer that eventually kills her at 35, her face shows the audience what it needs to know. She is also quite believable as the 15-year-old who pulls herself out of poverty by hitching herself to a series of men. This performance would be more than enough to recommend Evita, but everything around her contributes strongly as well.
Justin Gregory Lopez is Che, narrator and commentator on Eva's rise and decline. The role is based on Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary who had a major role in the Cuban revolution. He sings and moves through the part very well, and vocally it is written quite high, but he could use more bite. Nick Duckart is Juan Perón, near the pinnacle of Argentinian power until he unites with Eva, who takes him all the way to the top. The part is thankless, but Mr. Duckart is a strong presence in the role. Victor Souffrant is Agustin Magaldi, the first man to help Eva on her march away from poverty, and Gizel Jimenez is Perón's Mistress who sings "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Her facial expressions are vivid, and I could just about touch her deep emotional pain. Junior Cervila and Gabriela Gomez are tango dancers who add authenticity in several places during the show and have an important spot in act two. The entire ensemble is just magnificent, the dancing equal to almost anything on Broadway, and they also have important vocal chores which they dispatch beautifully.
The MVP of this production is Josh Rhodes. Evita is not one of my favorite musicals because the story telling is uneven, with musically dull stretches, even if they contain important dramatic information. Rhodes does an unerring job of making those moments dramatically more interesting than I feel they have been in my past experiences with this show. Part of the way this happens is through the identifying of the different classes in play through extraordinary costuming of the ensemble by Brian C. Hemesath. The big moments are always going to sell, but Rhodes makes Evita carry you with it from start to finish. One telling moment for me is "The Waltz for Eva and Che." The song is about a push and a pull between the characters. Rhodes brings the tango dancers into the scene, so that when one of them pulls away, they dance into the tango duo. It is brilliantly theatrical and makes this moment work far better than I have ever seen or imagined. This is a brilliant production of a problematic musical, making the strongest case imaginable for the piece.
Asolo Rep's always spectacular technical wizardry is also in play here. Scenic design by Paul Tate DePoo III is authentically Argentina. The focal point of the setting is a huge, 20 step staircase used in multiple ways. There is a major coup de théâtre in the first few minutes of the show almost alone worth the price of admission. I mentioned costuming for the ensemble, but Mr. Hemesath's designs for our heroine are also stunning. Lighting design by Paul Miller plays the darks of Evita's early days against the bright light of her days in the spotlight. Sound design, using a brand new sound system that sounds spectacular, is by Will Pickens. Projections by Alex Basco Koch are used sparingly, but when they are used, they make a great contribution. Michelle Hart does her always incredible job on hair/wig and make-up design.
Sinai Tabak leads the orchestra and is credited with "additional arrangements." I think I heard a few places where he made the original orchestrations just a little more authentic. He is an old soul in a young man's body and always does sensational work.
What can I sayI am bowled over by a musical I have always had a lukewarm relationship with. The good news is Sarasota audiences will have until December 30 to catch this incredible production. Don't miss it.
Asolo Repertory Theatre presents Evita through December 30, 2017, at the Mertz Theatre in the FSU Center, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Florida. Box Office 941-351-8000. For more information visit www.asolorep.org.
Musicians: Nick Bruno: Drums