Regular visitors to the Crighton Theatre have come to expect excellence in each production. But now and then the Crighton takes things to another level and soars into the theatrical stratosphere. The current, not-to-be-missed “Evita,” is just such a memorable production. Cancel your other plans and catch one of this weekend’s final performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Now, in the intimacy of the elegant Crighton, I have figured out why this show has been difficult for me since I first saw the original Broadway production a quarter century ago. Of course the complexities of mid-20th century Argentinean politics surround the rise of actress Eva Duarte (played brilliantly here by Jenny Wassom) to the heights of power at the side of dictator, Juan Peron (sung with great vocal power by Monroe Taylor). Then, most difficult for me, was the highly operatic style of the piece, which is sung in its entirety. Ideally, one should be fully familiar with the libretto in advance in order not to miss the details of the Tim Rice lyrics. The Andrew Lloyd Webber score is hauntingly beautiful and has wide variety. In this production, superbly directed by Larry Calhoun, the music is wonderfully performed. There is exceptional musical direction from Mary Bach, while the fine orchestra (recessed a bit toward backstage center) is well coordinated by Dave Englert.
The trumpet work from Jennifer Kirk was outstanding. Both the Children’s Chorus (skillfully directed by Sandy Cawley), and the Adult Chorus, brought added musical richness to the piece. This was evident right from the starkly somber and chillingly dramatic opening scene of Eva’s funeral. The story of her rise is then told in flashback. Bringing greater clarity to that story is the role of Che (Travis Bryant) as the narrator who guides us along the way. Bryant joins confident stage presence with outstanding vocal power producing a memorable performance essential to linking the scenes and putting this complex tale into focus.
With statuesque beauty, seductive grace, and her voice smoothly elegant, Wassom was, from the outset, in total command of the stage, even when projecting the gritty aggressiveness of an opportunist. She anchors the production with true star quality. One audience member, Bob Pizzitola of La Porte, mentioned he had been anxious for the intermission so that he could check the program and find out where this “guest star” was from. He was amazed to learn Wassom was local talent. In an early scene she is paired nicely with gifted vocalist, Joe Winter (as nightclub singer, Agustin Magaldi) and he sings a rapturous “On This Night of A Thousand Stars.” That song is followed by Eva’s thrilling “Buenos Aires,” highlighted by our first look at what would be many moments of lovely dance from choreographer, Kim Bryant. For added elegance there are the lush costumes of Lynn Peverill. Eva herself is a parade of elegant fashion and hairstyles; and Wassom could strut her stuff on an architecturally pleasing bi-level set (from designers Ron Craig and Gary Baumgartner) that was warmly lit by lighting designer, Steve Garvin. With powerful interludes from Wassom, a robust chorus of the men accents the amusing game of musical chairs that shows Peron’s rise to power during “The Art of the Possible.” Mr. Taylor’s operatic skill is on full display during the Charity Concert that follows, and Eva is stunning in a shimmering green/black gown with feathered trim and black fur stole. Peron’s mistress, (Lara Winslett) is sent packing, but not before Miss Winslett shows her sweet-voiced skill in a lilting and gentle reflection on lost love (“Another Suitcase in Another Hall”), that featured richly melodic counterpoints from the men.
In the amusingly staged “Peron’s Latest Flame,” the wonderfully catty Grande Dames of Argentine society reminded one of the snooty Ascot race in “My Fair Lady.” As “A New Argentina” closes Act I, the deep-voiced richness of Taylor combines with the brilliant vocal savagery of Wassom amid the frenzied union worker demonstrations.
Act II opens with Eva on a balcony, dressed in a gown of glittering pink and silver satin, and looking every inch a queen as she is presented to the cheering throng below. Wassom delivers a wistful and dreamlike, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” and then lashes out in a sassy “Rainbow High.” Cast choreography was less sharp during Eva’s whirlwind “Rainbow Tour” of European capitals, but was much improved during an ironic look at the Peron’s financial corruption with “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out).” As illness begins to overtake her, Eva sings the richly crafted “You Must Love Me.” Wassom makes this song full of longing, truly her own, and then goes on to sing “Eva’s Final Broadcast,” providing the wrenching, high-plane theater only a skilled actor/singer can create. The closing “Montage” gives us a look back at both Eva’s life and the show’s lush music, before frail Eva’s tender and touching, “Lament.” My only lament — The show was over!
(The Courier 9.8.04)
(The Villager 9.9.04)