Beloved by low-income, working-class Argentines during the 1940s and ‘50s, Eva Perón showed much political promise before her untimely death in 1952. Her life and the adoration she received from her supporters are relived in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1976 opera “Evita.” The opera follows Eva from 15 years old to her death, and through the experience of her first love affair with tango singer Agustín Magaldi. Magaldi ushered Eva from her low-income upbringings to Buenos Aires, where she eventually became a philanthropic and politically minded starlet, and met her husband, Juan Perón.
Director Ray Kennedy will be debuting “Evita” on the Wilmington theatre scene, courtesy of Opera House Theatre Company. The show runs Thursdays through Sundays at Thalian Hall through March 2nd. This is the first time Kennedy has directed the opera. The experience has been different from other plays he has overseen. All of the parts are sung, and this particular aspect of the show proved difficult because of lack of rehearsal time over the last few weeks.
“The weather was a challenge,” Kennedy says. With the snow and ice days Wilmington experienced within a two-week timeframe, the actors spect time learning the music from home. “The actors really brought their A-game in taking the initiative to learn the music” Kennedy says.
Kennedy took a unique approach to set designing the show. Though sparse in the first act, to mirror Eva’s low-income background, the blocking is set further apart. “In act two, we see a complete change in the set,” Kennedy says. “As Eva begins to rise in power, we bring in more light and the set becomes less sparse.”
Kennedy finds the most rewarding aspect of the directing process in the discovery of Eva herself. Argentines revered her as a saint. “She was the first person that really made a difference in the area of women’s rights,” Kennedy explains.
Perón proved vital in helping women gain the right to vote in Argentina. Once the bill was signed into law in 1947, she created the Female Peronist Party. It was the first female political party in the nation and had close to 500,000 members across the country.
Though an opera, the show still remains story-driven. The relationship between Perón and her husband is a complex one. The two met at a charity event to aid the victims from the San Juan earthquake of 1944. They reportedly left the event together and became entangled in an affair shortly after, before marrying discreetly in a civil ceremony in 1945. Kendra Goehring-Garrett and Jeff Phillips will play Eva and Juan respectively.
“Their relationship reflects modern political relationships we see in the news today,” Phillips says. “Much like Bill and Hilary Clinton, or Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Eva and Juan both brought something to the table. They were able to help each other with their accomplishments.”
Both Phillips and Goehring-Garrett hope to extract the depth of love these characters felt for each other. The main driving force behind the relationship is how they complement each other.
“[Eva] brings to [Juan] a sense of drive and ambition,” Phillips says. “She also helps him find a way to understand and connect with his people the way she did.”
“She really loves him,” Goehring-Garrett interjects. “That something you see in this play. It’s what drives her.”
Narrated by the everyman, Ché, played by Jon Berry, passion fuels the show from his outline and inevitably showcases everything wrong in his country. One of the shining moments of his cynicism is how Ché negatively reflects the country’s reaction to Eva’s death in the opening of the play. “What you see is not perhaps what the truth is,” Kennedy says.
Under the direction of Lorene Walsh, the live music will be played from a big orchestra, including three percussionists. “The musicians never quit playing,” Kennedy notes.
This provided a challenge to the actors onstage as well. “There are lots of tempo and cadence changes,” Phillips says. “You have to really learn it before you can play with it.”
Though not marketed specifically to the Latin community of Wilmington, “Evita” highlights the accomplishments of one of its most beloved public figures. “We’re marketing the show to everyone,” Kennedy says. “It’s a great love story that should be seen by all types.”
Feb. 20th-23rd, 28th-Mar. 2nd, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $29 • www.thalianhall.com