Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical follows the real story of Eva Duarte (Alyssa Chiarello), a poor girl in Argentina who rose to power and fame in the 1940s by calculating, scheming, and even sleeping her way to the top. She would eventually marry Juan Perón (Rusty Ferracane) who at the time they met was a Colonel. Perón would eventually be elected as Argentina's President, making Eva Argentina's first lady. The musical is narrated by Che (Michael Sample) a young man who has no respect for Eva and Perón's devious and sometimes illegal ways behind their rise to power. Evita is an interesting history lesson about a young poor woman who gets caught up in the struggle for fame and success.
While Evita is a pretty good musical, it is also one with a few shortcomings. It is almost completely sung, with only a couple of lines of dialogue. This requires the audience to connect the dots between some scenes in order to fill in the gaps in the plot. For example, we never see Eva and Perón get married and most of act one is a series of vignettes that swiftly, and somewhat confusingly, portray Eva's rags to riches story. Also, the characters never really make you care for them. Sure, Eva is from a poor family and yearns for success, but the manipulative way she goes about achieving it doesn't exactly make us sympathetic toward her. While Lloyd Webber's score is upbeat, varied and energetic, it also requires most of the cast, especially those playing Eva and Che, to scream or screech many lyrics. Fortunately, Rice's biting lyrics, Lloyd Webber's sweeping music and a second act that more clearly portrays the final years in Eva's life offset many of these shortcomings.
Director Robert Kolby Harper has assembled a first rate cast as well as impressive creative elements. The energy of the cast, Nicole Olsen's striking, tango-fueled choreography, and the pulsating and driven orchestrations effectively mirror the Perón's energy and drive to power. Harper's production is framed, mostly, as a troupe of performers telling Eva's story, with exposed stage lights, costume racks, and the backs of stage flats visible throughout the show. This is a nice touch, placing this backstage view in sync with the behind the scenes tale of Eva and Perón.
The role of Eva can be a difficult one to play and Chiarello is more than up to the challenge, with remarkable singing and acting abilities on display throughout. Her powerhouse vocals never falter, with clear enunciation of every lyric and phrase and an ease in the way she navigates throughout the very rangy score. She is also adept at the acting requirements of portraying the gangly yet extremely forward sixteen-year-old girl who finds her meal ticket in the form of an older tango singer who takes her away from her small town and to the big city of Buenos Aires. Chiarello's Eva is calculating yet passionate and a firecracker throughout, never faltering for a moment until her health begins to decline. Chiarello is sexy and seductive, tough as nails, while allowing Eva's vulnerability to make an occasional appearance. This is especially effective in the introduction to "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" when Eva is looking out at the masses that have assembled to see her and she appears to be amazed at how far she has come. It is a first rate performance. The only downside? This production requires less dancing by Eva then in previous productions I've seen. "You Must Love Me," the Oscar winning song written for the 1996 film, has also been incorporated into this production, which gives Eva a nice ballad toward the end of the second act and Chiarello delivers it quite effectively.
Michael Sample is just as good as Che and, considering he was a last minute replacement when the original actor was injured in rehearsals, that is even more impressive an achievement. His voice is extremely powerful and clear and his enunciation of every lyric is just about perfect. He is intense yet playful as the on-looker and narrator of Eva's story and shows the frustration and cynicism at what he sees going on around him. The role of Perón can be a bit tough to play, since it doesn't have a lot of layers, but Rusty Ferracane creates a realistic portrayal, effectively showing Perón as a caring, concerned person. Lucas Coatney adds an element of comedy to the part of Magaldi, the man whom Eva first latches onto and who takes her to Buenos Aires, and Sydney Marie Hawes delivers a stellar performance of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" as Perón's Mistress.
Yoon Bae's scenic design is simple yet striking, and Michael J. Eddy's lighting is excellent. The stage is constantly awash in streaming lights of different colors, including some deep, dark blues and purples, and the combination of Bae's sets and Eddy's lights provide some amazing visuals. Adriana Diaz's costumes are rich and colorful and Dave Temby's crisp sound design ensures that every lyric is heard with complete clarity. Alan Ruch's music direction is just as impressive, with a combination of rich vocals from the entire cast and sharp, distinct playing by the orchestra.
While Evita has some shortcomings, they are outweighed by the driving score and the performances. Phoenix Theatre's exceptional cast and first rate creative elements make this a production for any theatre-lover looking for a big, bold musical or anyone interested in experiencing the passion, power, and romance behind the story of Eva Perón's rise to power.
Evita runs through March 24th, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151.
Robert Kolby Harper: Director
*Members of Actors' Equity Association