by: Keith David Dillon
Just in time for the conventions, the celebrated Chance Theatre in Anaheim Hills is presenting their take on Evita, Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dramatic oratorio centered on the life and influence of little Eva Duarte, Colonelisimo Juan Peron’s first lady and the patron saint of the still influential Peronista party of Argentina. Now that’s serendipity. I mean given the uproar of our current Presidential campaign, Argentine politics are a helluva lot easier to chew on. Rice & Webber intended Evita to be an investigation of the nature of political power just as they intended Jesus Christ Superstar to be a look at the nature of the sacred. In fact, Evita and Superstar are structured in much the same way: the Saint basks in the soon ending light of her/his own glory while the outsider angrily reminds the saint that things are truly not all that glorious. Rice & Webber had quite a lot of territory they needed to cover in Evita, much of which that they never get to. For example, Evita never fully discusses the fact that Peron and Little Eva made Argentina a safe haven for Nazi war criminals like Adolf Eichmann. Of course, Rice & Webber didn’t have a lot of time, and, after all, Evita is only a musical.
Evita isn’t a very strong work, and it falls well short of being an historical investigation. The story is told by Che, a Greek Chorus loosely modeled after the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Rice & Webber tried desperately to make Che the antagonist of the play, but he’s never really a threat to Eva or Peron. The chief characters of the story, of course, are Eva Peron, Juan Peron & the “people,” who range from a famous Tango singer to a teenage hooker Eva throws into the hall. As with Jesus Christ Superstar, Rice & Webber reduce a very complex story to a rather clumsily chosen, poorly defined handful of events. By show’s end, we really know little about either Eva Peron or her country. In what must have been an effort to clarify, director Jocelyn A. Brown reassigns many of Rice & Webber’s lines, most notably a majority of Che’s lines, to members of her fine acting ensemble. Perhaps the idea is that we can better know Eva Peron’s Argentina by knowing her people, or her “descamisados” as she called them. Unfortunately, by doing so, Ms. Brown makes a bad situation worse. Che is reduced to an inconspicuous onlooker, and the show loses what little dramatic conflict it has. Not all of Ms. Brown’s line reassignments are ineffective; some make perfect sense. Others, however, make no sense at all. For example, the play opens with Eva’a funeral. As the people pass her body lying (or, in this case, sitting) in state, they sing Eva’s praises in Latin. Yet, almost immediately, in Che’s next number Oh What a Circus, Ms. Brown has Eva’s people carping about what a phony Eva was and what a hell she turned Argentina into. Doesn’t make sense.
Ms. Brown and her talented cast and crew cannot overcome the dramatic brittleness that is Evita. Given the material’s faults, however, the production is first-rate. At the top of the bill is Erika C. Miller in the title role. Ms. Miller regularly designs clothes for Chance Theatre productions; in fact, she and Alisa Duffey co-design this one. That fact reminds me that George Herman Ruth was once a helluva pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to her gifts as a costume designer, Ms. Miller is a talented actor. More than that, she understands, most likely intuits, that singing a theatre song is much more than simply acting on pitch. Listening to Ms. Miller sing is sheer delight. As Che, Michael Irish has a definite sense of who he is and how he fits into this mesh of actions. He’s possessed of a lovely tenor voice and he reminds me a bit of Bolivian President Ugo Chavez, or, more likely, IRA founder Bobby Sands. Jonathan Lamer strides with unbroken arrogance as El Colonel/Presidente Juan Peron. Mr. Lamer is an excellent actor, and his movie star good looks make him perfect for this role. Standing together, he and Ms. Miller even have an uncanny resemblance to another pair of fascists, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis. The ensemble is, indeed, remarkable. These actors fill out the smaller roles with the precision and craftsmanship of a fine Commedia troup. Given their skill, it would be wrong of me to call them “chorus.” The ensemble includes, among others, Bill Strongin (who deftly croons Magaldi’s tangos), Clarissa Barton (who plays Juan Peron’s mistress with heart and sincerity), and old friends of the Chance like David J, Dalton, character actor par excellance Tanya Raisa Mironowski, Jara Jones, Jessie McLean, Dan Flapper, Mirlana Filannino and young Sarah Pierce who, already, at the tender age of eleven, has had more commercials than I could drum up in 30 years of acting.
Kelly Todd’s choreography is excellent, in the main; simple, yet well-composed and even occasionally thrilling. One complaint I do have about the choreography; I simply don’t get the wrestling at the top of “The Art of the Possible.” Carmen Cortez Dominguez and her musicians deliver a clean, beautiful sound that both accompanies the action and cradles the voices. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set is a bit perplexing. It’s rather cartoonish, and not at all up to the standards of other sets I’ve seen at the Chance. It’s functional, I suppose, in that it can be rearranged with each change of scene, but it doesn’t evoke any Argentina I’ve seen. The sets are expertly lit, as always, by Chance lighting designer Tobaru Masako. Casey Long’s sound design mix the music, the voices and the voice-overs into a beautiful, eminently listenable whole. The costumes by Ms. Miller and Alisa Duffey are excellent as I’ve said, and the wig and make-up designs are lovely. Even with the weakness of the set, the overall look of the production is excellent.
No matter what their original intentions, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber turned the story of Lady Eva Peron into a pageant, a musical episode of Entertainment Tonight. Despite that, Evita has had a large number of fans since it first appeared in album form in the early 1970s. Every cast and director who produces Evita has to deal with its brittle pageantry. Jocelyn A. Brown and the cast and crew at the Chance try to overcome that brittleness and fill out the drama a bit. Try as they may, not even a fine production like this one can get past weak material like Evita.
The Chance Theatre
5552 E. La Palma Ave in Anaheim, Ca
For tickets and information, call 714-777-3033 or log on to chancetheatre.org