An Intimate "Evita"

By Geary Danihy

When you think of “Evita,” the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened on Broadway in 1979, you think of, among other things, big production numbers: crowds of mourners, a room full of generals, a nightclub filled with dancers. If the 1996 movie comes to mind, then “spectacle” is probably operative. However, an adjective that probably doesn’t come to mind is “intimate,” so when MTC Mainstage announced that it would open its 2015-2016 season with a production of the iconic musical, some might have scratched their heads a bit. Even with the enlarged space of MTC’s new digs, “spectacle” is not something that is possible. As he did with MTC’s marvelous production of “Cabaret” several seasons ago (in an even smaller venue), director Kevin Connors has managed to downsize the musical while still making it vital and often compelling.

Anyone familiar with musical theater doesn’t need to be told what “Evita” is about. Suffice it to say, for those who have been stranded on a desert island for the last 40 years or so, the musical chronicles the rise of Eva Duarte, who became Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina, a woman who slept her way to the top only to die at the age of 33 of cancer.

The musical opens with the announcement of her passing, causing a wave of hysterical mourning that the narrator, Che (Daniel C. Levine) views with a marked degree of cynicism. This is immediately followed by a flashback to 1934, when a 15-year-old Evita (Katerina Papacostas) essentially seduces Magaldi (Christopher DeRosa), a second-class tango singer, and forces him to take her to Buenos Aeries so she can get a bite of the “Big Apple.”

Jumping from bed to bed as she first becomes a model, then a star on the radio and finally a film actress, she finally hooks up with Colonel Juan Peron (Donald E. Birely) at a benefit concert in 1944. They immediately connect – he brings her home and Evita promptly ousts Peron’s mistress (Carissa Massaro) to begin her final rise to ultimate fame, power and purloined fortune.

Whether on a large or small stage, the fortunes of “Evita” rise or fall with the two actors playing the main roles of Che and Evita, and Connors is fortunate in his casting, for Levine and Papacostas both do splendid jobs.

The muscular Levine evinces the necessary degrees of cynicism and suppressed devotion that make the Che character so intriguing. His “Oh What a Circus” number at the start of the show let’s the audience know that it can sit back and relax, professionals are in charge, and this is confirmed as DeRosa does his “On This Night…” number, milking the “lounge lizard” effect for all it’s worth.

But what about Evita, who must travel from a 15-year-old on the make to become the regal “queen” of Argentina? Papacostas is more than up to the task. As the 15-year-old Eva Duarte she is feisty and sexually aggressive; as the budding starlet she is cynically seductive; as the first lady of Argentina she is cold and regal, until her body fails her and she pleads with Peron that “You Must Love Me.” And, yes, she nails the “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” number that opens the second act.

With Levine and Papacostas turning in fine performances, they more than carry the show, and the sexual tension between their two characters is ably captured in the “Waltz for Eva and Che” number. There’s limited room for the several dance numbers nicely choreographed by Becky Timms, and some line-of-sight limitations prevail, but the numbers are essentially effective, especially in the “Money Kept Rolling In” number, in which Levine comes close to stealing the show.

The only glaring problem with this production is with the lighting scheme created by Joshua Scherr. Often, major characters are in shadow and key scenes are under-lit or mis-lit. In fact, during many numbers actors seem to disappear into dark holes. One can only wonder what marks they are searching for to get themselves back into the rather haphazard lighting plot so they can be seen.

Lighting aside, this is a vigorous, well-acted and nicely staged production of what has become a classic of musical theater. Connors utilizes every inch of available stage space to tell the story, and is especially effective in his blocking of the difficult “Rainbow Tour” number, where Evita must travel from Spain to Italy to England. Yes, this is a down-sized “Evita,” but that doesn’t mean that the show’s inherent power is lost. In fact, Evita’s rise and fall seems all the more compelling and Che’s anger, frustration and desire all the more visceral when you are sitting mere feet away.

“Evita” runs through Nov. 1. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.

 

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