Eva Perón —Saint or Shameless?

A pro-grade student production of Evita lets you decide

"Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." 

Just hearing the title should activate the little earworm ready to burrow into your brain. The melody fills your head and plays a continuous loop for hours. 

If you see Arizona Repertory Theatre's wondrous production of Evita, expect that tune to linger in your head for days, or even weeks. The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice will hold you captive, because you will have added a visual and emotional context to the words. Evita has you in her spell.

ART is concluding its season with the ever-popular musical that made Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin household names, on this side of the Pond anyway. After wowing the West End in London with a different cast, the American show made a dazzling debut on Broadway in 1979. Some thought it grand; others not so much. But the fans won out and it was awarded a few Tony's along with numerous other prizes, as was its years-later Broadway revival. 

The story is a classically appealing one: A peasant girl climbs and claws to insinuate herself as her country's most powerful woman. When the story is embellished with music, song and dance, it's a dynamic, irresistible one. 

ART embodies it captivatingly. Director Danny Gurwin and musical director Mike R. Padilla have rounded up the cream of the musical theater college student crop and have taken them on quite a ride. This is not a simple story, and it offers even more difficult challenges to tell via songs and dance. 

Apart from the location of the show, in the Tornabene Theatre in the UA arts complex, there are few clues that this is a student production. It's a space that can be configured for various staging options. Here, scenic designer Clare P. Rowe chose a three-quarter thrust main staging area, with audience members seated in horseshoe-shaped fashion around the action. The numerous aisles created by the set-up are also part of the staging area. This is a huge show stuffed into a smallish space and it spills over into our laps. It gets up close and personal, immersing us in the action, the songs, the dance.

It's an intense choice, and it could have backfired. We are no longer at a safe distance as we would be from a more typical set-up, enjoying the illusion that such distance fosters. Here, the artifice of theatrical stuff –props and costumes—is in clear view, revealing uneven seams, pants that never got hemmed, and wigs that aren't immovably affixed. But, damn, it doesn't matter, because we become part of this artifice.

So, we are swept into Eva Duarte de Perón's story, or at least the one told here.

In reality, there are many versions. A mired-in-poverty girl wants something better for herself.

She wants to be an actress, a singer, a star, and she schemes to get to Buenos Aires where the action is. She doesn't mind stepping on—or sleeping with—those who could help her. When she meets Juan Perón at a gala to raise funds for victims of a grossly destructive earthquake, she recognizes a nice man and an opportunity. She grabs both. The lower-class populace latches on to her celebrity because she, like they, has known the desperation of poverty. She becomes their little Eva; she speaks to them and for them. She is a saint. Or is she?

Eva certainly plays the role; remember, she was a professional actress. Was she just acting or actually delivering genuine assurance to her impoverished fans that they had a friend in high places?

Politics is a nasty business and there are always skeptics of things that appear too good to be true. Webber and Rice have given us narrator, naysayer and cynic in the character Che. Harold Prince, the director of the original production, declared that he represented Che Guevara and should be played as a revolutionary, although there is no indication that that was Rice and Webber's intention. Directors since have made other choices. In ART's production, he's both critic and narrator, a one-man Greek chorus.

I am always amazed by the level of skill exhibited by the student actors, singers and designers in ART's performances. I'm not just talking talent. I mean the hard-won skills of those who diligently aspire to be professionals. Evita gives us these well-trained practitioners in spades. 

Shira Elena Maas wrangles the huge challenge of playing Evita quite admirably. It is such a tough role, the character swinging from bad young girl to distasteful opportunist to political goddess—all through songs, which are so demanding that we forgive just a bit of shrillness in her upper register. Matthew Osvog is Che, and he gives a strong but sensitive performance, urging us to look critically at how events are unfolding. His voice is also impressive, as is Alex Gossard's Perón.

The ensemble really makes the whole thing work. The orchestra, the pit singers, the tango dancing couple, Rachel Franke and Conner Morley—all contribute to a compelling theater experience. Warning: tickets may be scarce. 

Are you humming that song yet?

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