‘Evita’ – Big musical retelling of the story of a larger-than-life character

October 5, 2010.By Renee Valois, Pioneer Press.

Eva Peron's real-life story — starting with her birth date — has been much disputed, but it would be hard to argue that the musical based on her life is not entertaining. Theater Latte Da captures the passion of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Evita' with emotional performances and engaging staging at the Ordway McKnight Theatre.

Jared Oxborough provides a strong backbone for the play as the cynical, swaggering narrator of Eva's story (Che) while Zoe Pappas gives powerful voice to Eva, sometimes drowning out the musicians in her intensity.

The musical tale begins with Evita's death and the mourning of Argentina while Oxborough pulls out the stops as he belts out "Oh, What a Circus." Then we quickly leap back in time to when Eva is a 15-year-old setting her sights on a tango singer whom she persuades to take her to the "big apple" of Buenos Aires. Once there, she promptly pursues her dream of becoming a successful actress by sleeping with a succession of men who can help her, until she eventually hooks up with Juan Peron and convinces him "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You."

Jessica Fredrickson conveys poignancy in the ballad "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" as Peron's previous mistress, whom Eva tosses into the streets. This despairing song by a character we only see for a few minutes provides an effective counterpoint to Eva's rise, illustrating the downward path she could have landed on if fortune had not favored her.

In Rice's book, based on a biography critical of Eva Peron ("Evita: the Woman With the Whip"), she is portrayed as a woman who acted like she was caring in order to manipulate others — convincing the poor to help elect her husband president of Argentina by playing up her destitute origins and soliciting donors for her charitable foundation so she could siphon money to a Swiss bank account.

Although "Evita" makes the heroine self-serving, it also portrays her as larger-than-life — a potent dramatic cocktail in the hands of director Peter Rothstein, who uses overlapping action and a stairway on wheels to add intrigue and layers without descending into muddying complexity.

Music director Denise Prosek and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell effectively waltz though a wide variety of musical styles, from Latin dance to Catholic choral Latin. Kevin Leines ably conveys the personality contradictions of Juan Peron and Paul R. Coate gives Eva's first lover the right oiliness.

Although the story begins with death, in a sense it ends with a birth — of the myth of Eva Peron, epitomized in the song "Santa Evita," in which her sainthood is proclaimed by the peasants. There's irony in how she used her early life of poverty to galvanize the poor while she swathed herself in expensive jewelry and Dior fashions, futilely trying to gain the acceptance of the upper classes.

"Evita" provides an entertaining glimpse of a real woman who was much more complex and fascinating than any musical can convey.

What: "Evita"

Where: Ordway McKnight Theatre, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

When: Through Nov. 14

Tickets: $39-$29

Information: 651-224-4222; ordway.org

Capsule: A diverting version of the famous musical.