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Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through July 23
Oak Ridge Playhouse
This Playhouse production of Evita rises to its challenges
by Paige Travis
Compared to Andrew Lloyd Webber's fluffy Cats and poignant Phantom of the Opera, his Evita (with its lyrics by Tim Rice) is a veritable philosophical quandary. Was Eva Duarte Peron the savior of the Argentinean people or was she a self-serving opportunist who slept her way to fame and fortune at the expense of a country in need of a hero?
The show begins with the death of Eva Duarte Peron, who in her short lifetime (19191952) became a folk hero in Argentina. Born poor and illegitimate, Eva became a star of radio plays and found political fame as the outspoken wife of colonel-then-president Juan Peron. The Oak Ridge Playhouse stage is set with a cast of common Argentineans, mourning the untimely passing of the woman who always claimed to be one of them, even while she dressed in furs and jewels and was suspected of embezzling money from the government and her personal charity organization.
The people may love her, but other voices chime in as well. Eva's biggest critic, at least in Evita, is Che Guevara, who, during the rise of the Peron administration, was still a few years away from inciting revolution in Cuba. Actors Co-op regular Andrew Miller, dressed in a black tank top and leather pants, plays Che with a constant sneering cynicism. Whether the connection between Eva and Che is based in historical fact isn't confirmed by the program's timeline; one outside biography stated that Che's parents were anti-Peron, but he expressed no interest in politics at the time. Within the play, however, Che represents those Argentineans who didn't worship either Peron. This aspect could've used a bit more explaining in the program, but it's probably more a fault of the script than the Playhouse production.
Eva's charisma is fully born out by actress Chevy Anz, who has played the part three times previously, including at the Clarence Brown Theatre. Her singing voice is strong, and she is convincing as both the manipulative Eva Duarte who seduces powerful men and as the big-hearted Evita Peron who travels the world as Argentina's rags-to-riches ambassador. Her performance suggests that Eva may have been merely na•ve to believe she was truly Argentineans' savior, even as the country under Peron's leadership was falling apart.
The rest of the cast members sing well enough to keep up with Anz, who manages to handle some pretty fast-paced verses. Terrance McCracken is perfectly debonair as Agustin Magaldi, the tango singer who is Eva's ticket to Buenos Aires. Robert Meacham plays Juan Peron as a somewhat hesitant leader, an approach that may have been intended by director Reggie Law. Meacham wouldn't want to upstage Eva, who has the vision and energy that drives her husband as well as the entire country. His accent-tinged voice is warm and operatic. What Miller's Che lacks in vocal strength, he makes up for with sheer passion and energy. As a chorus, the cast is powerful, especially during the funeral scene when they sing in Spanish and when chanting "Peron!" or "Evita!" A small orchestra provides just the right amount of musical accompaniment to the production. Nothing lush, but just enough to keep everything flowing.
The Playhouse stage isn't large enough to accommodate much in the way of choreography, so maybe that explains the absence of high-stepping. The most obvious display was from five military men who could've used a few marching lessons from a drill sergeant (or, at least, the Von Trapp children).
Scaffolding above the stage and two staircases on the left and right allowed for a lot of movement in the relatively small space. With the cast dressed in black and gray costumes, the black and metal framework contributed to the industrial look of the set. This monochrome backdrop, completed with a continuing slide show of photos from Evita's history, makes Eva, dressed in stylish pastel suits of the period and the classic white ball gown, stand out in sharp contrast, as she must have when meeting and greeting her people like a princess among beggars.
While posing questions about Eva Peron's final legacy, Tim Rice's lyrics suggest something more universal: that people want beautiful, charismatic figureheads, heroes and idols who can whip the masses into a frenzy, who say all the right things and make lots of money. We don't want leaders, he suggests, we want movie stars. The story of Eva Peron lives on after 50 years because she embodied all these characteristics, not necessarily because she was important in world history (or because Madonna played her in the movie version, which certainly can't hurt), but because she, like Hitler, is a reminder of what can happen when dynamic leaders gain the support of a people in desperate need of a savior. Such a message is an interesting choice for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and ultimately an entertaining one for the Oak Ridge Playhouse.
July 20, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 29
© 2000 Metro Pulse