Evita – Review by Geary Danihy

I ask, have you seen “Evita,” the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?

You smile knowingly, as if to say, “Who hasn’t?” After all, you’re a theater-going pro – you’ve even seen “Xanadu.” You say: “I saw it on Broadway, I saw the movie, and I saw a road company production. I even saw a high school version – it wasn’t bad.” So, when you catch sight of a billboard on I-95 advertising a production of “Evita” at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut) in Ridgefield, you just shrug, take a sip of your salted caramel mocha frappuccino and continue on your way, little knowing that you’re making a big mistake, because no matter how many times you’ve seen “Evita,” this ACT production under the direction of Daniel Levine will open your eyes to just how good this musical can be.

There’s a lot to praise about ACT’s staging – and I’ll get to it – but first I want to comment on several aspects of this production that might normally be buried deep in a review: the choreography and the orchestra. First, the choreography, created by Charlie Sutton. It’s simply dead-on, punctuating the lyrics and the emotions they evoke. Performed primarily by 13 of the 18 cast members, listed in the program as “The Men and Women of Argentina,” and heavily influenced by the sensuality and physicality of the tango, Sutton’s choreography seems innately aware of how men and women use their bodies to convey emotions and messages, as well as the primary tensions inherent in the show itself. The men often aggressively stomp their feet to accentuate their supposed dominance; the women’s movements are lithe and fluid, suggestive yet, in their own way, expressing a different kind of dominance. Then there are the moments when the men and women come together, weave their body languages to create a synthesis of the male/female dynamic…and the movement is almost non-stop. There just doesn’t seem to be a single static moment in the entire production.

Then there’s the 10-member orchestra sequestered on a platform up-stage and conducted by Evan Roider. These musicians create a sound that is worthy of that of any pit orchestra on Broadway. From the show’s opening notes, the music seems to speak not just to the ear but to the entire body, filling the house and propelling the performances, wrapping the actors in a web of sound that is, at times, aggressive and propulsive and at other times seductive.

So, what about the actors? Well, from its inception, one of ACT’s stated commitments has been to bring “Broadway” to Ridgefield and, by extension, greater Fairfield County. Based on the casting for “Evita,” ACT is meeting its commitment. First, there’s Julia Estrada as Eva. From her first appearance as an on-the-make teenager to Eva’s death scene, Estrada commands the stage. She is, quite simply, everything you could ask for in an Evita – conniving, calculating, sensual and, at the right moments, vulnerable. It’s not just that she easily nails Eva’s signature song, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” she delivers a complete performance that makes you believe you are watching the evolution of “Santa Evita.”

Supporting Estrada is Angel Lozada as Che, Ryan K. Bailer as Peron, Julian Alvarez as Magaldi and Mariana Lopez Hilderley as The Mistress. Although one might ask for just a bit more heat/chemistry between Lozada and Estrada (especially in the “Waltz” scene), Lozada, as the troubled revolutionary, turns in an admirable performance, putting sufficient bite into his renditions of “Oh What a Circus” and “The Money Kept Rolling In.” Bailer gives us the essence of the suave, calculating politician and Alvarez is unmistakable as the lounge-lizard par excellence. Finally, in her one featured moment, Hilderley, as Peron’s young mistress, offers the audience a heartfelt, touching “Another Suitcase” – it’s possibly the best performance of this song I’ve seen or heard.

What makes this production of “Evita” so impressive is that the actors playing multiple roles as the “Men and Women” seem to be performing as if their very lives depended on the outcome, by that I mean there’s an abundance of energy up there as they sing, chant, clap and whirl about the stage, which is to the credit of director Levine and choreographer Sutton. What most impressed me was how the two-plus hours, even with an intermission, seemed to fly by, something that, unfortunately, often doesn’t happen when you’ve seen a show multiple times. Thanks to the scenic design by Jack Mehler (and a turntable stage), transitions between scenes are seamless and one musical number (the show is basically sung-through) flows into another so that the audience barely has time to catch its breath.

So, if you’re a semi-jaded theater-goer who shrugs at the idea of seeing “Evita” one more time, shed your façade of Webber-weariness and wend your way up to Ridgefield. You won’t be disappointed. ACT has boarded a first-class production that intrigues and entrances, thanks to a first-rate cast that perform just about every number as if it is opening night on Broadway.

“Evita” has been extended through November 11. For tickets or more information, go to www.actofct.org.