Evita impresses but fails to inspire

October 7, 2010.By Brad Richason, Examiner.   Theater Latté Da has never shied away from ambitious projects. Such singular devotion to fostering musical theater has earned Theater Latté Da a reputation for unusually evocative productions. So it comes as a disappointment that the company’s season opener, an adaptation of Evita now running at the Ordway Center’s McKnight Theater, falls somewhat short of Latté Da’s expected standards. Despite impressive performances and inventive choreography, an unrelenting pace prevents the production from realizing its full potential.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Evita envisions a sweeping biographical portrayal of Eva Perón, the remarkably determined Argentinean woman who rose from obscurity to become a widely beloved national figure. Through her marriage to Juan Perón, President of Argentina, Eva used her elevated status to champion the causes of human rights, resulting in her eventually being bestowed the honorific title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” Eva Perón’s extraordinary life makes for a captivating story, one that Webber and Rice endeavored to depict in all its contradictions and convictions.

In composing the music of Evita, Webber combined classical forms with flourishes of bombastic rock and traditional Argentinean styles. When skillfully integrated, what could have been a disjointed mess becomes instead an engagingly eclectic score. Achieving this essential musical alchemy is a challenging proposition even before attempting to incorporate the vocal acrobatics required by Rice’s history heavy lyrics. In large scale productions spectacle often glosses over performance shortcomings, but this more intimate adaptation gives the performers little cover. Thankfully Theater Latté Da has stacked the deck by casting Zoe Pappas, one of the Twin Cities’ finest musical performers, in the title role.

As Eva Perón, Zoe Pappas is given license to fully engage her dynamic vocal range. Pappas follows the tempo shifts with remarkable ease and never loses the emotional direction of the scene. Her character’s transition from self-serving ambition to humanitarian activism is rendered with enough zeal to restore luster to even the work’s most familiar number, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. Standing before a striking crimson backdrop (one of scenic designer Rick Polenek’s many visual flourishes) and radiating a warm glow (courtesy of lighting designer Paul Whitaker), the iconic moment captivates with fresh vibrancy.

The supporting cast proves no less committed to their parts. In portraying the largely narrative role of Che, Jared Oxborough (after some issues finding the rhythmic cadence of Oh, What a Circus) projects a swaggering cynicism that never fully hides his character’s deeper conviction. This latent characteristic movingly rises to the surface on the delicately tuned High Flying, Adored.

One unanticipated highlight comes from Jessica Fredrickson who, playing what might otherwise be thought an excisable role as The Mistress, gorgeously evokes the pain of a discarded life with Another Suitcase in Another Hall. Further standouts include Paul R. Coates for his virtuosic take on Eva’s former love, Magaldi, and Kevin Leines who lends surprising warmth to the role of President Juan Perón.

Breathing further life into the work is the versatile choreography of Michael Matthew Ferrell whose energetic fusion of waltz, tango, and ballet is often mesmerizing. Ensemble movements such as Buenos Aires are attention-grabbing, but it’s the quieter scenes that make the greatest impact. For example, I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You - backed by Zoe Pappa’s radiant voice - is a showcase of sultriness.

But for all the admirable qualities of the performances, a persistent one-dimensionality sticks with the production. Much of this issue can be traced to a breathless pace that leaves precious little room for the subtle nuances needed to add depth to the characters and underscore the historical significance. And while director Peter Rothstein does a laudable job of keeping the work running smoothly, Evita’s storyline often feels like perfunctory exposition to the next musical number.

As an evening of entertainment, Theater Latté Da’s take on Evita is a worthy effort, offering moments of deeply resounding passion. Unfortunately such moments never fully coalesce into an emotional center, preventing Evita from becoming more than an exceptionally impressive exercise.

Evita runs at the Ordway Center’s McKnight Theater through November 14, 2010.