Opera House Theatre Company opened their 29th season with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” on the main stage of Thalian Hall. In his producer’s note in the program, Lou Criscuolo discussed his renewed faith in the bond between audience and performer. Certainly, “Evita” encompasses a story that speaks very directly to bonds. Evita herself connected endlessly with the people of Argentina; thus, the star who plays the role must carry over that connection with the audience.
Following their 1971 success with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Tim Rice became fascinated with the story of Eva Peron, the deceased wife of then-deposed Argentine President Juan Peron. Webber, however decided he wanted to concentrate on a musical adaptation of PJ Woodehouse’s stories, which turned out to be a commercial failure. In the mean time, Peron had been returned to power in Argentina after almost 20 years of exile. The time seemed ripe for the musical “Evita” when the pair recorded the concept album in 1976 and mounted the stage show in 1978.
The story is structured very similarly to their most recent hit, “Superstar:” with an everyman narrator dismayed by how much things have gone off track. In this case it is Che, sung beautifully by Jon Berry. His disillusionment and frustration focus on the rising star of Eva Duarte (Kendra Goehring-Garrett), an illegitimate girl from the sticks who has her sights set on being an actress in the big city, Buenos Aires. She cons Agustín Magaldi (Tracy Byrd) into taking her with him to the city in a riveting scene of emotional blackmail played out in “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” and the answering “Eva Beware of the City.”
Once there she begins a meteoric rise which culminates in a love match with Juan Peron (Jeff Phillips), a military general involved in the delicate dance of musical chairs necessary to be the future president of Argentina (wonderfully illustrated in “The Art of The Possible”). Using her star power and the voice of her weekly radio show, Eva campaigns for Peron and wins the election and the hearts of Argentines.
As Che looks on, and raises uncomfortable and confrontational questions, Eva’s popularity soars higher, only to be grounded by her early death at the age of 33 from cancer. It is a love affair not so much between a man and a woman as it is between a star and her adoring public.
The ensemble of close to 35 performers boast voices that make every part of the score ascend. Beautifully choreographed by Ray Kennedy and Tracy Byrd, the world of Argentina comes alive with the art of dance. One could argue that the major exports of Argentina to the US have been beef and the Tango—a delicate, passionate and stylized dance that tells stories deeper than words. This visual metaphor is clearly the key note of Kennedy and Byrd’s vision for the pop opera. The music proves essential to every aspect of the show and Lorene Walsh has assembled a 15 member orchestra that impassions every note and carries the audience through the complex terrain encompassed in this musical.
Despite a powerful ensemble and strong principal cast, the success of the show hinges on one person: Evita. Does the portrayal of the star live up to expectations? Much like with the announcement of “Les Mis” last year, when I heard “Evita” was coming, I started fantasy-casting the lead in my head. There are so many talented singers and actresses in town, but I narrowed it down to about four people that I thought could really sing and play the part. Evita commands the stage for almost every song and carries the entire show on her back. The production’s Evita must embody the presence of a woman who captured an entire nation.
Enter Kendra Goehring-Garrett who combines not just charisma, wonderful dancing skills, and a performance that is captivating, but also a voice so beautiful that she could sing a song about genocide (and does allude to it in “Waltz for Eva and Che”) that would still shine. Does she sell the story of Eva Peron? Completely. Does she sell the show? Absolutely. It is worth the price of admission alone to hear her sing this score—and it is a far more memorable performance than Madonna gave in the film version. Touching on gentleness, remorse, desire, pain, frustration and a range of human emotions that a caricature of this character would ignore, Goehring-Garrett’s rendition resonates.
The design team has put together a really lovely world in which Evita and her populace can thrive. Scenic Asylum has a very bare, mostly scaffolding set with some nice scroll work to suggest the time period (1930s to early 1950s). Costumer Juli Harvey got almost 35 people through multiple costume changes, including military platoons, political rallies, parties and daily life. Outfitted in mainly drab colors to make Evita’s colorful ensembles really pop and sparkle in comparison, the strategic costuming of the ensemble cast delivers. Most of the color on stage comes through the shifting, shining world of Dallas LaFon’s lighting which constantly shades and textures the world as Evita’s fortune shifts, and attention changes.
For a season opener to illustrate the reflection of the stage in real life, Opera House picked the right show. More so, they picked the right star to showcase the play’s ranging emotions.
Fri., Feb. 28 – Sat., Mar 1st, 8 p.m., with Sun. matinee, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.