Theater Review: Opera North Makes the Best of ‘Evita’

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/1/2016 10:00:09 PM

Evita has all the ingredients a great musical requires, most notably a great story about a provincial girl who seizes the main chance and ends up with power and fame at great cost, both to herself and the people she leads.

And Opera North’s production, which opened Friday night at Lebanon Opera House, has everything a great production needs, including magnetic performers in the lead roles, great singing, dancing, music and sets.

How then, I wondered at intermission, did it feel so flat? Evita, despite its inherent virtues, is not a great musical, or even a good one. The efforts of an excellent cast and Opera North’s considerable talent and effort couldn’t redeem Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1979 fumble-fest of cliched lyrics and — with the exception of one indelible song — inconsequential melodies.

Evita, and other Lloyd Webber shows, are always asking audiences to love them. His singers declare themselves not to each other, which is the way drama works best, but to the seats. Every note cries out its meaning, leaching all the dramatic tension out of the proceedings. In his opening night introduction, Evans Haile, Opera North’s general director, reminded patrons that “it is the season of the lady,” with three productions featuring strong heroines. Eva Peron, who slept her way from the Argentine pampas to Buenos Aires and into the president’s mansion, deserves better.

So, too, do Opera North’s performers. Jenny Ashman is regal and imperious, even as the young Maria Eva Duarte, who finds a way to escape her small-town life and get to the Argentine capital, where she became an actress and a radio host. Her voice conveys the young Evita’s warmth and desire, but never lacks for steel.

As Che, Brandon Rubendall is the ghostly narrator in the musical’s machinery, explaining and coloring bits of Evita’s life. Rubendall seems a perfect fit as the wiry Argentine-born revolutionary, his graceful stage presence able to convey both a caustic anger at repression under the Peron regime and sympathy both to Eva Peron and to the Argentine people.

Next to these two, even Juan Peron, who was elected president of Argentina three times, seems a smaller figure, and Mark Womack conveys just that. In Evita’s telling, Peron was pushed to seek power by his wife, who wanted to stay in the light, in what she calls “the big apple,” of Buenos Aires. Womack’s Juan Peron comes off as a man who can be pushed by a strong-willed woman.

Conductor Louis Burkot, Opera North’s longtime artistic director, and Evan Pappas, who directed, deserve credit for wringing the available pathos out of the spongy material available to them.

Technically, the production is everything one might wish for. The set, by Paul Tate dePoo III, is largely unornamented, but functional, with a pair of broad staircases leading to a balcony. Jill Tarr’s costumes, crucial to a musical in which the lead character sings, “They need to adore me, so Christian Dior me,” (one of the show’s handful of clever lines), are excellent. Particularly effective was the makeup, credited to Stephen Lieboff and Allyse Good, required to age a young singer into a woman dying of cervical cancer at the tender age of 33.

All of these details were in service to a spectacle, rather than a great drama, and so it was spectacular, in visuals and in volume, but not great.

Evita began life as a rock opera album in 1976, and that origin is telling. The score is heavy with what sounds, not surprisingly, like undistinguished mid-1970s rock.

The show reached Broadway in 1979, where it opened to mixed reviews but nevertheless received many Tony Award nominations. The new musicals that year were very weak: The other nominees for Best Musical, which Evita won, were Barnum, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine and Sugar Babies. Not exactly West Side Story or South Pacific.

Its production at Opera North, as well made as it is, seems a bit of a mystery. A recent revival, in 2012, starring Ricky Martin and the Argentine-born singer Elena Roger, ran for only 46 weeks and didn’t recoup its initial investment, according to news reports at the time.

Writing for the New York Observer, critic Rex Reed began his review of the revival with this: “Can nothing be done, once and for all, to get rid of Evita?” It was downhill from there.

He had a point. Rice’s book is rife with stale language. In the first act he rhymes “splash” with “cash” and “trash,” calling to mind fourth-grade poetry. Later, after Eva Peron has risen to power, Rice writes that she is “dressed to the nines,” which the audience can already see, and in the next line the heroine says that she’s “at sixes and sevens.” Could he toss a few more numbers in there?

I think I understand Evita’s staying power. It’s a bit tawdry, even trashy, a kind of guilty pleasure.

What’s more, Evita contains a single sticky melody, from Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. It was the lone scrap of song that stayed with me from Friday night’s opening performance.

I was curious about what made that song so memorable, so I called my sister, a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She explained that it’s written in a major key and is built around the tonic triad of do, mi and sol. It follows a rising line before settling down to a lower do, which helps keep the song aloft. All these qualities make Don’t Cry for Me a serious earworm, and rather a pleasant one. Its originality also stands out from all the other music in the show.

It’s a shame that Lloyd Webber and Rice couldn’t have made more of Eva Peron’s story. Maybe someone else should take a crack at it. A play, even another musical that gets at her mixture of sensuality and opportunism, is worth another try, especially today, when a woman is within reach of the leadership of the free world.

In the program notes, Pappas likens the title character to Hillary Clinton, “a woman who, like Eva Peron, is as much admired by some as she is not by others.” (Though he noted that the comparison ends there.)

But the closer contemporary analog might be Melania Trump, an indifferently educated woman from the hinterlands of Slovenia who grabbed an opportunity to live in wealth and glamor in the Big Apple. And like Eva Peron, Melania Trump is married to a populist strongman. Trump is on the right, rather than the left, and Melania is not the magnetic figure Eva Peron was. Time will tell if she repeats Eva Peron’s rise to political power.

Performances of Opera North’s production of Evita are slated for Aug. 2, 4, 6, 11 and 13 at 7:30 p.m., and Aug. 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets ($15 to $88) are available through operanorth.org or the Lebanon Opera House box office at 603-448-0400.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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