Reviewed by George Basler
Evita raises a basic question: Can a strong musical score and first-rate staging overcome cardboard characters and a muddled plot?
In the case of SRO Production III’s production, which opened this past weekend (June 3-4) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, the answer is yes. Highlighted by a fierce and intelligent performance by Caitlin McNichol in the lead role, the show is consistently engaging.
But the staging can’t disguise Evita’s shortcomings. The tone is cynical and cold and keeps the audience at arm’s length. Some characters are ill-defined. There is little at stake emotionally, despite the fact that the main character dies tragically young at the end.
Evita opened on Broadway in 1979 with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. The show focused on Eva Duarte Peron, who rose from a poverty-stricken childhood to become the most powerful woman in Latin America and a political figure who was both adored and hated.
The topic was an unlikely one for a hit musical. Eva was hardly a household name in America. Still, the show has had amazing staying power, both on stage and in the movie starring Madonna. The enduring popularity, in my opinion, has more to do with the show’s spectacle and the quality of the score — arguably Lloyd Webber’s best — than the story itself.
In staging the show, director Scott Fisher faced the challenge of presenting large-scale production numbers on the small Firehouse stage. He did so admirably, making the movement both stately and fluid.
The 24-member ensemble is first-rate in the roles of peasants, workers, upper-class snobs and Eva’s political opponents. The uptempo numbers are fresh and inventive, and the somber numbers –notably Eva’s funeral — are striking.
A nice touch is the use of newsreel footage, including film of Eva’s actual state funeral, to supplement the action on stage. Fisher also did a good job staging two key crowd scenes at the end of the first act that cap Eva’s rise to power.
In addition, credit goes to the tango-influenced choreography of Ann Szymaniak, Kaylea Lockwood and Jean Graham. The moody lighting, which Fisher designed along with Joe Roma, helps immensely as well.
As Eva, McNichol struggles with some of the high notes of Lloyd Webber’s songs. But overall, her singing and acting are sensational as she nails Eva’s anger, bold ambition, self-confidence and contempt for Argentina’s ruling elite.
One of McNichol’s stand-out moments is her performance of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” the song that ends the first act as Eva is inaugurated as the first lady of Argentina.
Rather than going for a big, over-the-top vocal performance, McNichol wisely lowers the volume and acts the song. The more intimate approach gives it a special poignancy and impact. The character seems to be reliving her past pain and humiliation even while playing to the crowd. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
Alas, for the most part, “Evita” fails to dig beneath the surface of Eva’s character, giving McNichol little complexity with which to build on. The factors that formed Eva’s personality, namely her poverty and illegitimate birth, are giving short shrift. Even her efforts to help the poor, which made her a saint-like figure to many, are treated cynically. Instead, Rice and Lloyd Webber focus on making Eva a cold manipulator who schemes, and sleeps, her way to the top. The unsympathetic presentation undercuts the emotional impact of Eva’s death. (Surely there was more to this remarkable women than blind ambition.)
One attempt to try to rectify this cold tone is the poignant song, “You Must Love Me,” inserted near the end of the second act. The song wasn’t in the original stage production but was performed in the movie. While it’s a sweet song, the abrupt change of mood doesn’t quite work in the SRO production.
(A personal aside: The show was performed with the audience sitting both in front of the players and on two sides. I had the misfortune of being on the wrong side for this number because McNichol’s back was to me throughout. The emotional impact was lessened.)
Other leading characters are Eva’s husband, Juan Peron (Gene Czebiniak), a military general who works his way to the presidency, and Che (Andrew Simek), who functions as the musical’s ironic narrator.
Simek does a good job belting Lloyd Webber’s songs and works hard to convey the sting of Rice’s lyrics. Equally importantly, Simek knows how to command the stage and throws in some decent dance moves along the way.
The character is a problematic one, however. The SRO production presents him as an anonymous peasant worker who is a metaphor for Argentina’s political and social turmoil. But his motivations are never made clear. In the end, the role is more a device to move the plot forward than a real character.
Czebiniak brings a strong singing voice to the role of Juan Peron. While the part is a thankless one, Czebiniak gives a nuanced performance that balances Peron’s affection for his wife with his realization that Eva, to be blunt, is his major meal ticket.
Also making their marks are Eric Bill as Austin Magaldi, a tango crooner whom Eva seduces and drops on her way up the ladder, and Hannah Truman as Peron’s mistress, who is cruelly displaced by Eva. Bill brings a sense of rueful neglect to this role, and Truman sings her big number, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” with longing and clarity.
A shout-out should go to Jan McMahon for her costume design and to Wilfred McDaniels for the specially commissioned dress worn by McNichol for Eva’s inauguration. It’s striking.
The SRO production is visually and vocally striking as well. Despite some quibbles — having much to do with shortcomings in the original material — I found that it is a worthy effort.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (June 10 and 11) and 3 p.m. Sunday (June 12) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. Tickets are $20 ($18 for students and seniors); call (607) 722-2404 or visit sroproductionsonline.com