Eva Perón, the ambitious street girl who slept her way to stardom and demi-sainthood as Argentina’s first lady in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice bio-musical Evita, would love her recent incarnation in the Lyric Stage production at the grand Majestic Theatre. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1979, continues to lure old and new admirers, and this well-sung, handsomely costumed production, was energized by an alluring young dance ensemble that surely upped the local fan base.
Director/choreographer Len Pfluger, who directed the company’s 2005 production at the Irving Arts Center, restages the show in the gilded splendor of the historic vaudeville and movie palace, with a strong 30-member cast and a rich 20-piece orchestra conducted by Scott A. Eckert.
Mezzo Catherine Carpenter Cox returns as a sensual, knowing Evita, a woman born with the grit to make it to the top, and the daring to attract fans and fanatics, alike. The role demands a brave and brassy singer to lift the title character out of the casket in the opening scene and into the beds of the rich and powerful, as well as the hearts of the people. Cox is terrific, especially belting out songs in her bravado style as the bottle-blonde sex bomb. Despite a bad wig that reveals all the glued-on edges from the seventh row, this gal radiates crowd confidence.
Cox delivers Rice’s rough-and-tumble lyrics with clarity and a wink in “Goodnight and Thank You,” her brisk pace indicating how much she enjoys her easy mastery of the men who must “do up your trousers and go.” Yet, she also sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” with a raw, hoarse authenticity that sounds completely heartfelt. Cox, whether in a simple white slip or a perfectly fitted Dior suit, is all sparkle and triumph in “Rainbow Tourm,” smiling at her European admirers and dismissing detractors with a mini-shrug.
Brandon Wilhelm is a cynical fly-on-the-wall as Che, the doubting narrator whose running comment disavows the heroine’s sincerity. His diction is perfect as he speeds through the mourning or adoring crowds, but we also hear a certain admiration for the woman he mocks in “Peron’s Latest Flame.” There’s no rebel sexiness, however, in Wilhelm’s journalistic version of events, even when he dances face to face with his subject. This Che is more cautious of Evita than drawn to her, unlike the white-hot tête-à-tête made famous by Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin in the original Broadway production.
Hector Garcia’s Juan Perón, a man with a stunning profile but wearing an ill-fitted black wig, is an adoring strong man, putty in the hands of this seductive actress. Their duet, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” is less chemistry and more power-brokering, at least on her part. Garcia’s best song is his touching defense of his dying wife in “She Is a Diamond,” when his voice quavers just slightly as he recalls Evita’s shine and hardness, now suddenly vulnerable.
Lyric Stage has a longtime collaborative history with Texas Christian University’s theater department, and this partnership delivers two first-rate performances to the production. Soprano Annabelle Grace Woodard is tough and touching singing “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” as Perón’s young mistress kicked out of Perón’s bed when Eva moves in. JT Snyder is a svelte romantic tenor as Magaldi, the tango singer Evita runs off with as a teenager. His rendition of “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” sets the theme of sexual desire that drives the show.
The high, lilting sound of the children’s chorus singing “Santa Evita” reminds us of the innocent veneration with which many Argentinians held Eva Perón. Whether she deserved such adoration is another question.
Pfluger’s recreation of Larry Fuller’s original tango-inspired choreography is beautifully delivered by a young dance ensemble, and costume coordinator Nichole Hull dresses the peasants in subdued tones, the better to accentuate the golden tassels of the military uniforms and the glitz of Evita’s glamourous outfits. The evening flies by, and when Cox lifts her arms in the famous gesture of inclusion at the end of the show, we’re all swept up in that desperate last heat wave.
Too bad this production only lasted one weekend.