Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Theater Jones : High-flying, Unadorned Lauren Kennedy helps Casa's Evita soar.

High-flying, Unadorned
Lauren Kennedy helps Casa's Evita soar.
by Kris Noteboom
published Tuesday, February 8, 2011

photo: Glen E. Ellman
Kevin Gray as Che and Lauren Kennedy as Eva Peron

by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music); Tim Rice (book and lyrics)
presented by Casa Manana

Closing this week on Sunday, Feb 13
Next performance today at 7:30pm



Casa Mañana Theatre
3101 West Lancaster Ave.
Fort Worth, TX 76107
click here for a location map

Mention Andrew Lloyd Webber to theatergoers and you’ll get a healthy mix of reactions. Some decry his shimmery, epic style. Others laud him as one of the all-time greats responsible for Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera, and of course, Evita.

“Oh, that movie with Antonio Banderas and Madonna?” Yes. And at the same time, no. It’s so much more than that, as Casa Mañanaproves in its commendable production about the famed Argentinian actress-turned-First Lady.

Arguably Webber’s grandest epic, Evita tells the story of Eva Duarte de Perón (Lauren Kennedy), primarily through the narration of Ché (Kevin Gray), the indirect yet painfully obvious role inspired by Argentinean Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara.

Eva’s rise from poverty, which involves a mix of acting and sleeping her way to the top, receives plenty of focus. However, the real meat of the story manifests when Eva, via her marriage to Argentinean Secretary of Labour and eventual President, Juan Perón (Greg Dulcie), positions herself as an influential presence in the nation’s political structure.

Narrated by the singly named Ché , the tone of the story is often critical, for though Eva is seen, and eventually officially named, as the Spiritual Leader of Argentina, many of her deeds and motivations are called into question, ultimately painting a mottled picture of a woman who is still highly regarded in the South American country today.

Though told in Webber’s epic style, Evita is a well-focused story about the life of a woman destined to accomplish great things, but who is still human, and thus, flawed. In fact, in addition to being some of the best music Webber has ever written, Tim Rice’s lyrics, which in the operatic style also serve as the dialogue, are second to none.

The bottom line is, Evita is a powerful piece, buttressed by an embarrassment of awards and a who’s who list of former cast members. In short, it’s a challenge, and though not produced on nearly as grand a scale as written, Casa Mañana proves up to the task.

With one of the best and biggest opening numbers in musical history, Casa’s production got off to a rough opening night start. Obviously unable to employ the gargantuan size of the orchestra the music is written for, music director Craig Barna employed a simpler arrangement of the music that left much of the tone setting in the laps of the horn section. And while they performed admirably overall, they contributed to the slow start by taking a few minutes to find their rhythm, missing several notes along the way. Naturally, this is a problem that typically sorts itself out throughout the run of a show as everyone involved gets familiar with the pacing of the performance.

Gray’s Ché is quite obvious in its characterization. Dressed from head to toe in olive green military fatigues and wearing his famous beret, director Richard Stafford leaves nothing to the imagination. This is Ché Guevara, who has become a famous American T-shirt icon.

Some would point out that the original Broadway Ché, the great Mandy Patinkin, who won a Tony for the role, also wore military garb. True. The choice whether to dress Ché in military garb or plain clothes is a matter of preference. How subtle or blatant should the characterization be and how rooted in the reality of the story should he be. After all, Guevara was only from Argentina, he never carried out any of his actual revolutionary activities in the country.

Therefore, his presence is somewhat spiritual more than physical. In the end, Stafford chose a blatant, spiritual incarnation, whose unwavering, unchanging uniform is always visible regardless of what role he appears as in a scene. And arguably, this limited Gray’s performance as one can perhaps only operate overdramatically when wearing that ubiquitous uniform.

To that end, Gray is often angry and always scowling. His Ché lacks depth when he should be more conflicted. Gray has a nice voice, that sounds like he’s attempting to channel a mix between Mandy Patinkin and Antonio Banderas, but the character isn’t what it could be.

Conversely, Kennedy’s Eva is startlingly powerful. A difficult role previously played by the likes of Elaine Page and Patti LuPone, who famously hated the role due to the often high register it’s written in, Kennedy more than holds her own. And LuPone is right. It’s a difficult part to sing that requires powerful lungs and excellent range. LuPone may have struggled with it, but Kennedy excels. Using the particularly high parts as vehicles to drive home the intense emotion of the lyrics, Kennedy’s performance is stirring. No one will be left unmoved.

For being as big as it is, Casa pulls off a praiseworthy production. Mark Halpin’s stage design is simple, yet effective. Stafford and Jonathan Stahl’s choreography is intricate and well executed. And Stafford is able to take a relatively small cast in a small space, at least compared to what one would expect from a typical Webber production, and still made the story feel big.

And it is a big story. Eva Perón was an important and intriguing figure and this musical provides a particularly critically thoughtful version of her tragically short life, presented with a brilliant balance of the typical big box musical and an intensely personal and deep story about a woman.

Don’t cry for Argentina or Casa Mañana. They’re doing all right.

Here is TheaterJones' video interview with Lauren Kennedy.

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