Evita at the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre: Play finds heart under the layers of dross

October 13, 2010.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Going in, Theater Latte Da’s latest production, Evita, was at a disadvantage. After all, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical is no masterpiece. No, hold that–it’s a really terrible show, full of achingly bad lyrics (Tony Award-winning, by the way; another reason to question the validity of those prizes) and a score based on a handful of musical motifs that burn their way into your brain. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is probably the show’s best song, and it certainly isn’t wasted–the music is heard six times during the show.

So give it up for Latte Da for making Evita, now playing at the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre a genuinely pleasurable experience. The show moves briskly, the staging is excellent, and the performances–especially those of leads Zoe Pappas, Jared Oxborough, and Kevin Leines–carry the evening.

Evita follows the life of Eva Peron, who rose from poverty to become a star, then wife of the president, and finally a figure of religious reverence before her early death in 1952 at 33. The story is narrated by Che, who–while not Argentine revolutionary Che Guervera–is an Argentine revolutionary (or perhaps just that spirit manifested in a singing, dancing character). That gives us a skewed perspective on Eva Peron (Rice used a rather critical text of Peron for source material) and her works, which is certainly fine–I didn’t come in expecting a history lesson. The play certainly leaves a lot of room to explore the nature of fame and the differences between a public persona and the person who really lies beneath it all.

Rice misses most of these opportunities, but director Peter Rothstein finds the space to bring them out. He is aided by designer Rick Polenek, whose set carries much of the weight. The buildings that frame the stage are battered and scarred, decorated with black-and-white illustrations of the decades of the 20th-century turmoil in the country. All of that–and even a bit of knowledge of what happened in the country in the decades following Peron’s death–makes for a stark contrast to Eva’s personal story.

We watch her move way up Argentine society, starting out as the young lover of a musician, Agustin Magaldi, but abandoning him when she gets to Buenos Aires. From there she becomes a radio and film star before catching the eye of a rising military man, Juan Peron. Her charm entrances the nation, and the two are swept into power in 1946 on the promise of making the lives of the “shirtless” poor people better. As time goes on, Eva’s stake among her people and the rest of the world rises, but there’s always a question of who she is beneath all of the action. Rice’s book is skeptical of her intentions, but often rings false in the face of her charity work and obvious devotion to the people of the country.

Of course, coherency and Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals are often mutually exclusive–it’s often just about making spectacular moments. Several are sprinkled throughout Evita, from the obvious Act Two opener of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” to some of the Eva and Juan moments, to lament by Juan’s former mistress “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Unfortunately, this interesting character never comes back.

Many of the thrills here come from choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell, who uses the tango as the production’s foundation, which works especially well as Eva “seduces” all those around in her rise to the top. Often, Ferrell pushes it toward the ridiculous (a line of dancing soldiers comes to mind), but it is a perfect place to go for this show and production.

The cast of 16 makes it all work, bringing off the characters and events with plenty of clarity, intensity, and emotion. Pappas brings out all sides of Eva, through not just her excellent voice but her command of the stage. Eva needs to be a larger-than-life, enveloping presence, and she has that from the very beginning of the show. The tall and graceful Leines gives Juan real elegance and brings out the character’s deep adoration for his wife, no matter what situation they are in or how dire the problems that surround them.

Oxborough gives the performance of the evening, however. Che is a fragmentary character, representing more of the spirit of revolution than a living, breathing person. Yet Oxborough draws out a real person–full of energy, disgust, and even rage. It’s a difficult role to do well, and he pulls it off with seeming ease.