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Evita – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Eva poster

The thing to remember about Evita is that no two productions are ever alike. They can’t be. Because of its construction and its origin as a concept double-album, when a director receives the libretto, there may be some written suggestions as to where the song is taking place, but how it’s presented and performed is entirely up to the creativity of each new director.

Like Jesus Christ Superstar, and to a degree even the various revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, working on a new production of Evita is like starting again and working from the ground up; how ever you want it to look, depending on budget, available talent, and the way you see it in your mind’s eye, it’s yours to create.

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Under Robert Kolby Harper’s inspired new direction and the energetic choreography of Nicole L. Olson, Phoenix Theatre premiered a new production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical this past weekend, and it bursts with theatrical invention. That’s what makes this Evita so exciting. Depending on your knowledge of the work, knowing what number was coming next and the mounting anticipation of how it might look and sound, with each new song and each new plot development, witnessing this latest incarnation of Evita as it developed became as electrifying as watching any thriller. What you think of Lloyd Webber’s forty year-old score – the concept album was first released in 1976 – is down to personal taste. Criticizing the source material at this point is moot; the average regular theatre-goer will already have formed an opinion. What’s important here is what Phoenix has done with it.

With the occasional change of lyrics, the tweaking of songs and the removal of another, the score as sung and arranged in this production is pretty close to how it sounded back in ’76 when Julie Covington first recorded the lead. The ’96 movie softened many of the arrangements, plus it lowered the vocal range of its lead to accommodate the star, Madonna – something you can hear for yourself with the addition of a song written specifically for Madonna in the film, You Must Love Me – but this is the theatrical version, and that occasional strident and challenging sounding arrangement, just as Lloyd Webber composed, remains.

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The original Evita, Elaine Paige, voiced no complaints, but Broadway’s Patti LuPone stated she felt she was screaming her way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women. Despite some of her well known behind-the-scene’s grudges and backstage fights, it’s not altogether difficult to understand what LuPone meant; when Evita (Alyssa Chiarello) and the show’s one-man Greek Chorus, Che (Michael Sample) sing duets under Alan Ruch’s musical direction and their voices mount, then mount even further, there’s always that danger of things sounding less melodic and simply abrasive. But that’s exactly how Lloyd Webber wrote it.

Evita specialThe arc of the story, played out by Tim Rice’s clever and often witty lyrics, may be a fragmented account of the real event, but generally Evita is a reasonably accurate telling of this crazy woman’s fascinating life. With Dave Temby’s inventive sound, Michael J. Eddy’s colorful lighting, Yoon Bae’s excellent scenic design, plus Adriana Diaz’s period costumes and Kelly Yurko’s hair and make-up, the marriage of all these components working together create a wonderfully new visual account on the Phoenix Theatre stage, and it’s one that is full of surprises.

Due to an opening week accident during rehearsals, the original Che, Carlos Encinias, was forced to bow out causing the production team to frantically scramble as they re-worked the cast. With just a few days to go, Michael Sample stepped in for Che causing Lucas Coatney to fill Michael’s original shoes as the tango nightclub singer, Agustin Magaldi. Under normal circumstances, both performers would be deserving of praise for the clarity of their performances, but considering the startling drama and the upset of a last minute, emergency change, the praise deserved is now doubly so.

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Alyssa Chiarello has grabbed the challenging role of Evita with both hands, and it shows. With good looks that work for Eva Peron – the Argentine was, after all, quite the glamorous movie star of her day – and powerhouse vocals, Chiarello reaches those demanding heights of Lloyd Webber’s score in the way that even the British composer would admire. But it’s the quieter, lower register songs where she excels. The gentler, melodious sections of High Flying Adored, plus the showstopper Don’t Cry For Me Argentina are standouts, but it’s with that lesser known movie song, You Must Love Me that was added to the theatrical score in 2006 that truly haunts. It’s not simply a case of singing it well; as with all cast members, Chiarello is acting; she’s singing and delivering the song in character. Compare the Madonna version with Chiarello’s and it’s the Phoneix Theatre version that will move you the most.  Madonna sang it; Chiarello embodies it.

With his tall frame and the wide, padded shoulders of a military officer’s uniform, not to mention his exemplary voice and acting talent, Rusty Ferracane is an imposing and intimidating Juan Peron. There’s an appropriate sense of danger whenever he’s on stage. Plus, special mention to Sydney Marie Hawes as the mistress. Hers is a short scene with only the one number, but Another Suitcase in Another Hall was always a beautiful song, and in keeping with the rest of this talented crowd, Sydney not only sings well but delivers it in character. You sense the disappointment and sadness as she’s removed from Peron’s life by the calculating Eva, and it’s all established within a couple of minutes.  The look on her face the moment she realizes it’s all over is tragic.  You feel the hurt.

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But arguably, the show’s real star is the one we never see. Director Robert Kolby Harper is also a choreographer, and as displayed in the past, it’s Harper’s keen sense of rhythm and movement that gives this Evita the spark of life.  Songs flow from one to the other in a never ending sequence of creative moves that can only come from someone who fully understands how to incorporate dance choreographed by another (Nicole L. Olson) into the narrative of a non-stop musical. The invention of having Eva’s lovers appear and disappear through doors in Goodnight and Thank You plus the excitement of staging And the Money Kept Rolling In as a whirligig of movement, culminating with money thrown into the air with a sense of triumph and jubilation is why this Evita works so well.  You won’t be disappointed.

Pictures courtesy of Erin Evangeline Photography

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.

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