Regional Reviews: Boston
This symbolic ball gown is our gateway into director Sammi Cannold's deconstruction of the legend surrounding Eva Perón. Much of that legend, of course, has been perpetuated by this very musical.
The rock opera Evita, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics and book by Tim rice, had its genesis as an album before opening on stage in London (1978) and on Broadway (1979) in productions directed by Hal Prince. Lloyd Webber and Rice's poperetta echoed their previous hit Jesus Christ Superstar in stripping away at the cultural fascination surrounding such a provocative, revolutionary figure. In the case of Evita, the writers' take on the First Lady of Argentina is cynical and contemptuous, charting the swiftness of her rise and her tragic fall with relish. But they also knew one thing: love her or hate her, you can't take your eyes off of her.
Here at A.R.T., Cannold's intelligent production reframes the authors' polemic by trying to understand what made Eva Perón into the infamous woman she became. My concern was that Cannold would soften our protagonist's spikier edges, but this fear was unfounded. Instead, we get us a human-scale Eva without sacrificing her zealous ambition or her ruthless self-aggrandizement–as she sings, "the choice was mine and mine completely."
To many Argentineans, then and now, Eva Perón is an icon who selflessly devoted her life to the poor and marginalized. To her critics, she played Lady Macbeth in a fascist political regime that prized loyalty over democracy. This production asks, how can we reconcile the woman at the center of these diametrically opposed views?
Much of this challenge falls upon Shereen Pimentel's shoulders as Eva, and she rises to the challenge. Her Eva is headstrong and mercurial, charmingly manipulative, but also disarmingly vulnerable in her most unaffected moments. One of the chief appeals of Evita is hearing how singers navigate the high-wire act of Lloyd Webber's notoriously difficult vocal lines. Pimentel has a powerful soprano with a strong lower register, and she seems careful to choose which specific high notes to belt. While she seems to hold back vocally as younger Eva (notably in "Buenos Aires"), thankfully her singing gains more ferocity as the character ascends to power.
Cannold's rethinking of the original text is most pronounced in Eva's early years, when she leaves her small town of Junin for Buenos Aires. After fending off her meal ticket, the slimy tango singer Augustin Magaldi (Gabriel Burrafato), she's groped and harassed by a slew of men in the big city. This 15-year-old Eva is wide-eyed, unaccustomed to the ugly truths of life, until being thrust into an unforgiving patriarchal world. Later, she perpetuates this same cruelty upon Perón's latest mistress (Naomi Serrano, whose "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" is beautifully affecting).
There's a dissonance between this directorial concept and the vibrant "Buenos Aires" dance music that feels at odds. Nonetheless, I found it refreshing to see Cannold grapple with the show's inherent clichés about women who sleep their way to the top. Rice's lyrics are filled with this overused trope, from an entire song musicalizing Eva's revolving door of lovers to the Madonna-whore duality evoked over and over again ("a cross between a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint"). Even in her big ballad, the authors have Eva confess her sins ("All through my wild days, my mad existence") to the adoring masses. What wildness is she repenting for?
In this staging, Eva quickly learns to play by the rules of society and to best the men at their own game. By the time she meets Juan Perón, she can skillfully wield her charm to attract his interest. And as Perón wavers on his presidential ambitions, she propels him (and really, them) to victory: "All you have to do is sit and wait, keeping out of everybody's way."
As she amasses greater influence over the Argentinian people, Eva buys into her own cult of personality ("I'm their savior, that's what they call me!"). In one of this production's most chilling moments, she launches into a frenetic crusade to become the next Vice President of Argentina despite her failing physical strength (she would die of cancer at 33). Of course, Eva's noble sacrifice of the vice presidency further cemented her sainthood in the eyes of her devotees.
While the show is more fascinated by Eva's opportunism, its authors do not hold back from critiquing her and her husband's political leanings. Enter Che, our narrator, who chronicles for us the evils of the Perón administration: the silencing of critics and the press, efforts to rig elections, cozying up to Franco during Eva's Rainbow Tour. Cannold's staging smartly connects Che directly to the Perónist regime; he's no longer the outsider looking in. But, though Omar Lopez-Cepero is impressive vocally as Che, his overall performance is too understated for my taste–too mild to work as an equal counterweight to Pimentel's Eva.
Surrounding the two leads is Caesar Samayoa's Juan Perón (both tender and terrifying) and an excellent ensemble that gives life to the lush Lloyd Webber choruses and Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff's sensual tango-infused choreography. Everything is cleanly staged inside a neon-framed black box on a largely bare floor, with a few spare set pieces to demarcate each scene (notably, most of them are beds). The one moment of visual spectacle is reserved for "Don't Cry For Me Argentina." In a wonderfully effective choice by costume designer Alejo Vietti, Eva is dressed throughout in white: a comment on her angelic nature, perhaps, or a wink at her public sanctification.
"But who is this Santa Evita?" Che asks. Evita has always favored entertainment over insight, and this production is no exception, rethinking how Eva came to be but deferring from placing much of a historical judgment on an enduringly divisive figure. That's probably the reason this musical persists: the irresistible Lloyd Webber earworms, the thrill of watching its leading lady command the room. We didn't come to debate fascism; all we want is a little touch of star quality.
Evita, produced by American Repertory Theater in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company, runs through July 30, 2023, at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge MA. For tickets and information, please visit americanrepertorytheater.org or call 617-547-8300.