Power playing

Theater by the Sea’s Evita
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  July 23, 2008
SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL DYNAMICS: Brummel and Linsley in Evita.

If you think that American politics can get operatic, you should check out South American political history.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did so, and the result was Evita, the 1979 Broadway hit which garnered seven Tony Awards. Theatre by the Sea is staging a slick rendition (through August 3) that gets across much of the power of the personalities and social forces involved.

With music by Webber and lyrics by his sometime collaborator Rice (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar), the show was bound to be pumped up with the sort of visceral energy that can prove moving, whether for a crowd-stirring Broadway show or a Buenos Aires political rally.

This is a sympathetic but unblinking story of Eva Duarte Peron, who in harsher accounts was the Lady Macbeth behind Juan Peron, the corrupt strongman/president of Argentina through the late 1940s. This high-flying show has several sources of propulsion: a young girl’s ambition thrusts her from poverty to virtually being the queen of the country, as the impoverished masses lift her to sainthood in their hearts, and her increasingly inflating ego raises her to rarefied international heights. She was bound to plummet. As the title of the biography that the show is based on indicates, Mary Main’s The Woman With the Whip, she was not a lady who would plummet willingly.

Evita — as the people affectionately called her — ran off to the big city, Buenos Aires, at age 15. Illegitimate, she had to stay out of sight at her father’s funeral. The musical goes for heart-wrenching scenes of that sort when it can, opening with her death being announced at a movie screening, as the audience wanders off amidst tears and gestures of comfort.

Evita is played by Anne Brummel, who has toured in the role in a Hal Prince production. She establishes the character with cunning delicacy and fiery-eyed determination when either is appropriate. That cunning is blatant and businesslike, which helps retain our sympathy and perhaps admiration for a clever girl on the make. In “Goodnight and Thank You,” she is matter-of-fact about dismissing the lovers she runs through, each presumably advancing her career as an actress. By the time Eva meets Juan Peron, she is sophisticated. (She was about 37 then, though her period of bed-hopping social-climbing seems brief in the show.) In “I’d Be Good For You,” she makes his teaming up with her look logical and inevitable.

Peron is also performed with good balance, by Kenneth Linsley. He establishes a dignified but not arrogant presence, one soft enough to make plausible that Eva’s ambitious prodding will be successful and not resented. During “The Art of the Possible,” in which several generals walk around chairs until only one seat and general are remaining (while we guess which is Peron), Linsley looks more and more to be the likely victor.

In other productions I’ve seen, that scene is conducted like a game of musical chairs, providing some mock tension that’s missing here and not provided by anything else. Similarly and more significantly, director and choreographer Amiee Turner eliminates the military drill usually conducted by some soldiers during “Peron’s Latest Flame,” which contrasts so chillingly with sauntering aristocrats, and has them just mill about. Another flat moment.

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