By Brooks Appelbaum

The big question surrounding the small Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) was how its opening show, Evita, could possibly work on their tiny black box stage. Since I am the only person on Planet Musical Theater who has never seen the show before, I am unable to compare MTC’s production to a bigger and more elaborate one. However, there’s no doubt that director Kevin Connors’ minimalist approach works beautifully. Not only do we, as audience members, feel immersed in Eva Peron’s story, but we also feel, at times, as if we are Argentina’s people, admiring this multi-faceted woman, or -- during some sections -- suspicious of her undeniable charisma and the way she puts her power to use.

The creators of this sung-through rock opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, cleverly use Che Guevara (a terrific Daniel C. Levine), here presented as a virulent anti-Peronist, to frame their telling of Eva’s rise to power, eventual abuse of that power, and decline. Che’s cynicism, at times erupting into fury, creates a fascinating counterpoint to the story of Eva’s effect on her adoring people.

Given the space, Connors must use a small cast: Che, Evita, and Peron are not doubled, but seven out of these ten actors play multiple roles. Paradoxically, this helps to create the sense of an entire country. His cast is uniformly terrific, and the characters’ emotions have a pulsing immediacy since the actors are only a few feet away. When we must be immersed in a crowd (as in “Requiem” and “What a Circus,” the opening numbers in which we see the masses mourning for Evita) news footage of the actual events is projected on both walls of the theater. The technique is effective.

Evita’s success ultimately depends upon the actors playing Che and Evita. Here, Connors has cast beautifully and brought out remarkable performances. Daniel C. Levine, as Che, is muscular, agile, and possessed of a voice that can sing a tender duet (“Another Suitcase in Another Hall”) or scream in rage (“And the Money Kept Rolling In”). Levin’s Che has his own brand of show-stopping charisma; we have no choice but to follow his lead, and believe his version of the story, whenever he is onstage.

Katerina Papacostas brings us a fiery Evita who ages from fifteen to thirty-three before our eyes, and who uses her fierce ambition, energy, and seemingly fragile beauty to sleep her way from model, to radio star, to film actress, and finally, into the heart of Juan Peron, first a Colonel and then, with Evita’s help, Argentina’s president. Evita’s seduction of Peron within the space of a duet (“I’d be Surprisingly Good for You”) would seem completely implausible, but Papacostas compels belief with every gesture and every word. And she sings each note of this difficult score with purity and strength. Here is an actress who uses her voice to serve her character and the play. In her rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” the song transcends its own fame as a stand-alone number and tells the story it was written to tell.

Each member of the ensemble brings total commitment to whatever role he or she is playing, and Becky Timms’ creative and evocative choreography helps the musical move at a vigorous pace. David Heuvelman’s dark-hued set uses one upper level, with imagined rooms on either side of a bridge-like structure, to represent many locations; the back of this level also masks the excellent band (Thomas Martin Conroy, Mike L’Altrella, Jim Andrews, and Chris Johnson). Though it’s nearly impossible to understand every word in a show like this, the sound balance between musicians and performers is excellent. Only the lighting design (Joshua Scherr) obscures the action in a way that goes beyond communicating gloom. Far too dim, and often focused on a minor character when the obvious major character stands inches away, the lighting proves a distraction.

Otherwise, MTC and Kevin Connors have presented an Evita that is original and strong. When I see Evita again-- and based on this production, I willI -- I’ll compare whatever extravagant staging I might find to this powerfully intimate show.

Evita continues performances at Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk, CT through November 1, 2015. For tickets, please visit www.musictheatreofct.com or call the box office at 203-454-3883.

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