Monday, May 1, 2017

"Evita"


Evita
Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music); Tim Rice (Lyrics)


Ashley Cowl as Eva Perón
With music that ranges from solemn classical, hip-swishing Latin, and grinding rock to soaring ballads and anthems, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita leaves any audience member with enough memorable earworms for a full night’s worth of dreams.  The endurance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music coupled with lyrics by Tim Rice that are now part of everyday parlance (like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”) has kept to-date this first British import to win the 1979 Tony for Best Musical in almost constant tours and revivals on stages throughout the world. 

With an underlying story about a would-be politician who rises from nowhere to presidency while making largely false promises to the working class (“We are all workers now, fighting ... foreign domination of our industries, reaching for ... our independence, our dignity, our pride”), Evita takes on new meaning in 2017 America.  At the same time, the main story about a strong, determined (and perhaps a bit flawed) woman who rises from poverty to the near-religious adoration of a nation is still the heartbeat of the musical.  In a production over-flowing in talented actors with stunning voices, Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre brings this now-classic musical to the stage in a production that smacks of Big Apple quality on the intimate Firehouse Arts Center stage of Pleasanton.

As a musical that relies totally on the lyrics of Tim Rice to tell its story (leading some to think of it more as an oratorio), Evita is a double-tracked love story between Eva Perón and her adoring husband Juan and between Eva and the lower classes of Argentina who worship her and in turn elect her husband president in 1946.  In a stroke of genius, the creators install the contemporary, revolutionary Che Guevara as cynical bystander and narrator who does not buy into the sincerity of her love for either but – along with the country’s aristocracy who despise her – sees her only as a manipulator out for her own fame and fortune.  That the two never met in real life is immaterial to this fictionalized accounting of Eva’s rise from actress, radio star, and mistress-to-many to become the wife of a military general who in turn -- with the help of her widespread popularity among the proletariat -- becomes the country’s ruler.  The tension created by Che’s continually calling out what he sees as lies and deceptions while at the same time both the common people and we, the audience, are captivated and totally enthralled by the passion and beauty of Eva is what enables the story to live up to the incredible score of Andrew Lloyd Webber – a score known for its repeatable, melodic themes that become permanently etched into its listeners.

One of those ongoing, musical phrases is discerned in the opening “Requiem” as the entire ensemble mourns the 1952 passing of Eva Perón, with our hearing strains of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” that will eventually become the musical’s memorable climax.  But even as the mourners’ tears flow, Che sings “Oh What a Circus,” sending the story back in time to a younger Eva when her last name was still Duarte and then going step-by-step through her rise to power to prove “as soon as the smoke from the funeral clears, we’re all gonna see and how, she did nothing for years.”

David Sattler as Che
David Sattler takes his place among the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Antonio Banderas, and Ricky Martin as a Che as worthy of the role as any.  With a voice that is in every respect Broadway worthy, we hear even in his opening notes a smirk in his rich voice that cannot hide the snide, even angry disposition Che has for Eva Perón.  And yet, there is also somewhere a hint of reluctant respect and awe in the way he watches her from his oft-sideline, stage position.  In number after number, his obvious doubt and disenchantment with Eva only continues to grow, with his ‘truth-telling’ taking a particularly bitter twist in the darkly funny “Goodnight and Thank You” where he sings of her numerous one-night stands as she climbs the success ladder via the bedroom.  Mr. Sattler never falters to score big each time he emerges from the shadows to take on one of several roles (protester, journalist, etc.); but perhaps his best among many wonderful moments is when he duets with Eva in “High Flying Abroad,” a number where his voice ascends in intensity and volume with such ease and yet such clarity to mesmerize the listening audience.

The Cast of "Evita"
The focus of his scorn and of course the real star of the show, Eva, is played with equally impressive skill by Ashley Cowl.  Her Eva has a voice that cuts through the air with an edge and determination to tell everyone that Eva Duarte/Perón is going to control her own destiny (“Buenos Aires”).  As she convinces Perón that she is the right one for him, Ms. Cowl can be at one point sassy and seductive and a moment later can be angelic with a voice full of sincerity and love (“I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You”).  She walks and sings both as a harlot and as a saint; and when she is showing her total resolve to conquer his heart, Ms. Cowl literally screams with sung vocals that never screech but only soar.

But it is in the second act when she moves to the iconic balcony scenes that Ashley Cowl proves she too is a Evita ready to take her stand among the many stars who have stood there before (Elaine Page, Patti LuPone, Elena Roger).  When we finally get to hear her sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” the emotion of her voice is highlighted by the quivering of an upturned lip that cannot be ignored and by eyes that pleadingly look out into the masses to seek confirmation that she is as loved by them as she loves in return.  The many faces of Eva Perón are worn with high credibility by Ms. Cowl – from small-town girl to city-smart stage star, power-seeking mistress, and internationally known right-hand of a ruling dictator.  Brava!

As Perón himself, Chris Vettel’s rich baritone with its air of reserved aristocracy is a nice contrast to his more melodramatic, always profuse wife.  The highly romantic voice of William Giammona easily sends hearts swooning as it echoes “Oh This Night of a Thousand Stars” with the repeated “on this night ... on this night” by the handsome crooner leaning into the microphone being a memory not easily shaken.  And in her one number and one time on stage, Carolyn Bacon’s sweet voice with a melodic air much like a bird in flight draws an audience’s sustained applause and heartfelt pity as she plays the young, innocent-in-appearance mistress of Perón sent on her way by his new and permanent bedroom resident, Eva.

David Sattler & Ashley Cowl with Members of the Ensemble
A large ensemble of eleven plays multiple parts as the men and women of Argentina – admiring peasants, stern-faced military officers, tux-and-mink-wearing aristocracy, one-time lovers of Eva grabbing their pants as they high tail it out.  Under the astute and creative direction of Misty Megia and the well-planned, well-executed choreography of Christina Lazo, the ensemble time and again reigns supreme in numbers that show off their hip-sassy sexiness through swinging salsa (“Buenos Aires”), high-browed snobbery through tightly coordinated group movements (“Peron’s Latest Flame”), and big-stage show time through a Fosse-like “And the Money Kept Rolling In.”  The vocals of the ensemble are also consistently impressive with big, bombastic sounds and closely blended, almost discordant harmonies.

Further production mastery is ensured through a set and lighting design by Patrick Brandon that lets the audience know from the beginning that the famous balcony is at some point going to happen and that highlights both the underbelly of the Peróns’ rise and rule and the grandeur of that climb and power.  And none of the visual wonder of the production would be possible without the many changes of costume from simple to sumptuous designed so ably by Margaret DaSilva. 

Rachel Robinson directs the music of Webber, never disappointing in the way she has enabled and ensured that the many solo and collective voices do full justice to the score.  While the six-person orchestra never detracts from the totally sung story, the instruments often do sound as if there are six solos being played versus a blending of their notes, particularly in the few places where there is only orchestration heard.  (Hopefully, this was an opening night bump that has already been corrected.)

Just as the Company recently did with Anything Goes, Pacific Coastal Repertory Company proves with this production of Evita to be a somewhat small stage that can put on big musicals to match in many ways the best of mega-theatres.  The quality of cast assembled, the excellence of overall production, and the near perfection of direction makes a trip to Pleasanton well worth made by any Bay Area lover of musical theater.

Rating: 5 E

Evita continues through May 14, 2017 at the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Avenue, Pleasanton, CA.  Tickets are available at http://pcrtproductions.org or by calling 925-931-4848.

Photo Credit: Berenice Sullivan

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