"She didn't say much, but she said it loud." - Che, on eulogizing Evita Perón.
LOUD was the operative word at Casa Mañanaon the opening night of Evita (playing at Casa Mañana Theatre through February 13) -- unnecessarily loud. The two talented leads, Lauren Kennedy as Evita and Kevin Gray as Che, had legit Broadway chops, and truthfully didn't even need to be miked. Evita's real-life story was full of violent emotions and political rhetoric and whenever those two got especially expressive, their mics made them so loud they actually distorted their excellent singing voices. Their mics were so hot that they made me wish I'd had one of them riding around town with me this week to melt the two inches of solid ice on the roadways.
Ditto for the adult chorus: When they started singing, nay, shouting, nay, SCREAMING "Requiem for Evita" at the opening, their mics simply should have been cut. We could have heard them quite easily without electronic assistance. I reached in my purse and pulled out my Bluetooth to put it back in one ear, so that I would have to protect only the other ear whenever this happened throughout the show.
Director Richard Stafford had assembled a gifted cast of well-enunciating singers, so all this extreme amplification was completely superfluous. However, I chalked it up to having seen the show on opening night, while they were still tweaking the sound, and I'm sure by the time you go see this show -- and I am strongly recommending that you go see it -- these sound problems will have disappeared.
Thanks to Costume Designer Tammy Spencer, this show was also a treat for the eyes. Costumes were lush, elegant, and true to the time period when depicting the wealthy English socialites or Evita once she had risen "Rainbow High," and they were monochromatically accurate when portraying her descamisados (the shirtless ones -- the working class who wore t-shirts instead of dress shirts). I especially loved the way Spencer often had Evita, who was in virtually every scene, change costumes right on stage with little effort and no delay, and how she ceremoniously "stripped" the English of their power.
The choreography, created jointly by Director Richard Stafford and Associate Director Jonathan Stahl, was stunning. The Argentinean slums were the birthplace of the tango, and the cast executed tangos, and other dances, with breathtaking precision. Of special note was the tango couple, who were featured in several numbers as punctuation to the musical dialogue. A couple of times, their dancing was so far upstage I was certain that audience members seated far house left or far house right couldn't see them at all, and that would have been a real shame. They even handled a quick "wardrobe malfunction" early in the show very adeptly. Unfortunately, the program didn't list their names so that I could recommend that you go see them again wherever they appear next. I wish I knew who they were.
The choreography of the military men was ... unexpected. The soldiers (or sailors?) were obviously well-trained in ballet, and executed the plies, lunges, squats, and whimsical goose stepping with admirable meticulousness. The first time they appeared, however, they made me giggle as I reminisced about Monty Python's classic Army precision drilling but in the second act, when Greg Dulcie's solid Perón comically tried to mark their steps along with them, it really sold me on their dance moves.
Kevin Gray and Lauren Kennedy from Casa Mañana's Evita
Sam Rushen's lighting design was very dramatic, especially during the fun Dr. Strangelove-like/musical chairs number "The Art of the Possible" and Evita's triumphant anthem "Rainbow High."
All of the leads in this production were very well cast. Both Jonathan Bragg, as Magaldi, and Ashley Arnold, as Perón's teenaged mistress, lifted their respective solos heavenward (well, at least as high as the center of Casa Mañana's tall geodesic dome) with effortless purity. Greg Dulcie not only physically resembled the actual Juan Perón, but also brought a subtle, sly comedic element to his portrayal. Kevin Gray, as Che, was always intelligible as the story's narrator, which was not an easy feat with that many lyrics, Lloyd Webber's labyrinthine vocals, and the accompanying emotions required of the part.
The entire show, of course, rested on the slender shoulders of Lauren Kennedy as the titular Evita. At the beginning of the show I was unsure of the choices she was making. Not usually portrayed (as Kennedy was doing here) as a naïf who got swept up into the fast life of Buenos Aires, Evita was rather a manipulative, malicious, Machiavellian woman who knew what she wanted and went after it with a vengeance, even while still a teenager. I just wasn't feeling the "edge" that Evita, according to all her biographers, had from the get-go and wasn't afraid to use.
The real Evita, shown in actual vintage black and white photos on a video screen periodically throughout the show, was not beautiful, nor even really pretty. But she oozed confidence and had a commanding presence, and when she died, most of Argentina petitioned the Vatican to have her canonized. That kind of devotion wasn't inspired by a coquettish Disney-esque heroine.
I could tell you the exact moment in which Kennedy brought the real Evita to the Casa Mañana stage. Near the end of the first act, Perón dreamed of leaving politics and going off to another country, "sipping cocktails on a terrace, taking breakfast in bed." He was sitting on the edge of the bed, while she was walking upstage, with her back to the audience. When she heard his "crazy, defeatist talk," she leaned on the headboard, and her entire body portrayed her emotions: disgust, frustration, and the "there he goes again" sigh of realization that she was, once again, going to have to re-talk him into grabbing and maintaining power with an iron fist. And she did all this with her body -- the back of her body, actually -- as we could not see her face.
So now the big question, the only one that anyone thinks when they hear of a new production of Evita: Can she do "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" justice? Sí, señor. She nailed it. I knew all the iconic renderings of this ballad -- La LuPone's, Madonna's, and my favorite (don't laugh), Karen Carpenter's. I could safely say that Kennedy claimed this showstopper and made it her own. Her Evita then stayed strong and believable throughout the entire second act to the sudden, jarring finale.
If you've never seen Evita, this production is recommended highly. Though every line was sung, each word was enunciated so well, you wouldn't lose the thread of the plot. If you already love Evita and know every word, I still recommend this production highly. The talent, a good deal of which is home-grown, was phenomenal, and we all need to be supporting good theatre with live orchestras and terrific music directors like Craig Barna, if we want it to continue at this soaring level.