Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

San Francisco Playhouse

Sophia Alawi
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Evita, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics and book by Tim Rice, is, in my opinion, the greatest of ALW's many musicals. The story of the brief, tragic life of Eva Perón, who went from small-town girl to radio star to first lady of Argentina in less than two decades, is elegantly and efficiently told over the course of two hours (including intermission), with some of Webber's best songs and Rice's most-insightful (and cutting) lyrics. The production currently playing at San Francisco Playhouse, directed by Bill English, maintains most of the magic of the original score and book. Although there are some weak points in this production, English's taut direction and the underlying quality of the show overcome those few missteps.

English has chosen to set this Evita on a mostly bare stage (design by Heather Kenyon), with a projection screen upstage (put to its most impactful use in the final scene) and set elements (platforms, staircases, beds, stage doors, and even an airline's boarding stairs) rolled on and off as required. This allows plenty of room for the cast of 15 to establish a variety of scenes, and revel in Nicole Helfer's excellent choreography (especially in the number "Perón's Latest Flame"). He has also, with the help of dramaturg and Argentine native Juan Rebuffo, attempted to reimagine Eva's story to help it bend a little bit closer to the truth of her life than the Eurocentric vision of a couple of Brits working from a biased biography.

The show opens inside a movie theater. When the picture is suddenly halted, the crowd hiss and complain–until a voice announces that the beloved Eva Perón has "entered immortality," and the crowd begins to weep and wail, segueing into "Requiem for Evita."

Cut to 18 years earlier, when a 15 year-old Eva Duarte (Sophia Alawi) is enamored by a traveling tango singer named Augustín Magaldi (Jurä Davis) and–despite his warnings in the song "Eva, Beware of the City"– wheedles him into taking her to Buenos Aires, Argentina's "Big Apple." There, she becomes an actress and dumps Magaldi for a series of men who exit through her stage door as Eva and Che (Alex Rodriguez, in a role that serves as both a narrator and commentator on the onstage action) sing "Goodnight and Thank You."

Meanwhile, Juan Perón (Peter Gregus), a rising figure in the military, is climbing his own ladder to success, expressed during "The Art of the Possible." This number is usually staged as a game of musical chairs, with Perón ending up the winner. Finding this approach "boring," English replaced it with a series of fencing matches, with Perón again coming out the victor. Using weapons in this way heightens the aura of menace, but undercuts the sense of inevitability that was part of the original staging. Had each fencing bout ended with the loser exiting the stage, ultimately leaving only Perón standing, this would have accomplished that. But having the losers hanging around after their defeats minimized the impact of Perón's rise.

When Juan and Eva finally meet–at a benefit concert (headlined by Magaldi) for earthquake victims–each determines they would be "surprisingly good" for the other. Especially for their ambitions. Successfully coupled, Eva shows Perón's current paramour the door, leading to perhaps the loveliest song in the score, the hauntingly beautiful "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," sung here with aching tenderness by Chanel Tilghman. The song is also a marvelous metaphor for the detritus of those thrown over by the ambitions of others.

The great songs just keep coming with this show, notably "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "High Flying, Adored," "And the Money Kept Rolling In," and the rousing thematic anthem, "A New Argentina." Each song, as the songs in musicals are supposed to do, helps reveal character and move the plot forward. And since Evita is mostly sung, with very few lines of dialogue, the show would be unmoored if the songs didn't do the work of keeping the narrative on track.

Although the musical itself is perfectly balanced, the cast here doesn't quite reach the same level. Though Alawi is brilliant in her opening scenes as a grasping, ambitious teen, it takes a little too long for her to develop the gravitas necessary for the role–and unfortunately, she never quite gets there. Her voice has a lovely tone, but she struggles somewhat with the rangier aspects of Webber's score, especially when trying to call up the lowest notes.

As Che, Rodriguez has a wonderful energy, but lacks the lean and hungry nature of the role. His voice, at least in the middle registers, conveys the anger and distrust of authority Che feels, but Rodriguez occasionally struggles to reach the highest notes. Gregus is the perfect physical type to play Perón, with his slicked back hair, stocky frame, lantern jaw, and large, block-shaped head that looks substantial enough to double as an anvil. But his voice simply isn't up to the role, and he has problems with pitch throughout the show, especially in "Rainbow Tour."

The show is still, even after 45 years, surprisingly trenchant in its political savvy. Hearing Eva shout how all her efforts "are for you" put me in mind of our former President's claims that he will be his follower's "retribution." English, to his credit, has not only played up the political aspects of Webber's and Rice's show, he did significant research into the history of the Peróns, adding new layers of intrigue and politicking that previous productions have missed or glossed over. The result is a production that, despite its few flaws, delivers its message with tremendous clarity and impact.

Evita plays through September 7, 2024, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00pm, Wednesdays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $30-$125. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.