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Thursday, June 27, 2019 11:29 am

Sex, lies and political power

Evita, a must-see at the Muni

Mary Kate Smith (Eva Peron) and Greg Donathan (Juan Peron).
Photo by RT McDonald

 

The Muni Opera is staging the groundbreaking and endlessly entertaining musical Evita for the first time in a generation, and it is a must-see.

Evita is the very adult Cinderella story of Eva Duarte, a poor Argentinian girl. Through powers of seduction, Eva rises from rags to riches and marriage to Juan Peron, the autocratic president. As First Lady, Eva aligns herself (cynically some would say) with the poor and working class, winning herself and Peron enormous popularity and the enmity of the rich. Her anthem, and plea of self-justification, is the famous “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” At the height of her influence, cancer overtakes her at age 33. In death she becomes a symbol of Argentina, worshipped by her people.

Evita is also about illusion and myth-making and brazen power. While Eva and Peron are the center of the story, the unlikely narrator is the iconic Marxist Che Guevara, who continually charms and challenges us. He sees Eva as a power-mad fraud. Who is Evita? Che demands. When lies are repeated often enough and loudly enough, at what point do they subdue the truth? That those questions are never fully answered on stage remains part of Evita’s power.

With the phenomenal Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice invented a revolutionary pastiche style of musical. In Evita they took a leap forward in musical sophistication and narrative ingenuity, fusing rock, liturgical music, jazz, classical and Latin music with acerbic and deeply intelligent lyrics. Evita premiered in London and New York in the late 1970s, ran on Broadway for five years and won multiple Tony Awards. Millions around the world have seen it on stage and in 1996 Evita became a feature film with Madonna and Antonio Banderas.

Back then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, authoritarianism was waning, and the political themes in Evita seemed backward-looking. Today authoritarianism is on the rise, and it may be the perfect time to revisit this landmark musical. Curiously, in the 1980s both the UK’s Margaret Thatcher and Donald J. Trump claimed that Evita was one of their favorite musicals.

At the Muni the first-rate staging, with direction by Craig Williams II and choreography by Zoey Zara, is inventive and organic. As the audience arrives, the stage is bare save for a portrait of Evita. It is the perfect choice, an empty canvas for projecting illusions and fabricating political fairy tales. The handling of the massed chorus and dancers is especially impressive and they become an additional character, alternately responding to events and driving the action forward. Like the endlessly flowing score, the staging and design create a nearly continuous stream of settings and imagery.

The role of Eva Peron is a mountain, musically and dramatically. Mary Kate Smith climbs it and she comes back down with banners. Her “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” is up there with the finest anywhere. Embracing the role’s contradictions, Smith is nuanced, a hurt, angry, compromised human being, using what personal strength she may have to find some kind of redemption.

Smith first appears as a 15-year-old about to embark on the first of many affairs with a second-rate Tango singer overplayed to perfection by Cory Blissett. Then Blissett surprises us, revealing the character’s care and concern for the young Eva. We see Blissett twice more in this role and then miss him for the rest of the show.

Greg Donathan, with his encompassing voice, brings welcome complexity to Peron, both loving and ambivalent. His scenes with Smith’s Eva feel lived-in and authentic, from their meeting in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” to her deathbed.

In a show about bluster and illusion, the lament by Peron’s ex-mistress, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” is one of the few moments of honesty, sung with heartbreaking beauty by Hope Cherry.

As Che, Daniel Maughan is appropriately callow and angry. By the end he is still angry, but wiser, and a revolutionary. He is impressive throughout, and Maughan’s vocal power just keeps pouring over us.
This Evita features exceptional music-making with vocal direction under Christie Lazarides. Jaime Escatel ably led the orchestra through the complex score with admirable communication between pit and stage.
The Muni is a Springfield tradition. Its new presentation of Evita is a thought-provoking, entertaining and beautiful show.

Evita continues June 26-30 at 8:30 p.m. at The Muni, 815 East Lake Shore Drive in Springfield. themuni.org. For the curious, Google “Peronism,” about the Argentine political movement started by Juan and Eva Peron.  

Dennis Thread is a freelance writer/filmmaker/creative director with experience on Broadway, television, opera, documentaries and in corporate and institutional communications. He is a recently returned Springfield native.

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