Latté Da tangos with ‘Evita’

October 4, 2010.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.   Theater Latté Da’s production of the well-known musical looks great, but the emotional power of Eva Peron’s journey feels slighted.

Theater Latté Da’s production of “Evita” is a gorgeous thing to behold. Michael Matthew Ferrell’s choreography accents a stylish, sophisticated approach with tango flavors. Denise Prosek’s band is perfectly attuned to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s diverse score, and the entire opera moves fluidly under Peter Rothstein’s direction. “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” will ring in your head for days.

“Evita” opened Saturday night in the McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center in St. Paul with Zoe Pappas singing the legendary creature who held a brief love affair with adoring Argentinean masses before an early death elevated her to demigod status. Rich Polonek’s set uses a newsreel inspiration to render the black-and-white postwar era; Paul Whitaker’s lights have a stark resonance with that design, which allows Rich Hamson’s costumes to distinguish the color in Pappas’ Eva Peron. Only the sound was troublesome on opening night, demonstrating again the tricky limitations of amplified performance.

Yet, where is the soul in all this beauty? Even in her most unguarded moments, Pappas’ Evita struggles to elicit sympathy, and Jared Oxborough simply isn’t up to the passionate bravura of Che Guevara – who serves as the opera’s narrator. Rothstein has given us a production to admire rather than to feel.

Librettist Tim Rice tilts “Evita” toward the vision of a woman who schemes her way to a populist adulation with a calculating eye for media manipulation. Pappas often strikes us as a latter-day Lady Macbeth in Rice’s libretto, pushing Juan Peron (a colorless Kevin Leines) toward the presidency while she siphons money through her charitable foundation.

Showing a character’s warts is well and good, although here it throttles the enigmatic charisma that Evita obviously enjoyed. Her rare ascension from rural poverty to national icon cannot be reduced to a story of simple ambition that slights her mythic dimension.