And as for fortune, and as for fame
I never invited them in…
They are illusions, they're not the solutions they promised to be
The answer was here all the time
I love you, and hope you love me….
Instead of government we had a stage
Instead of ideas, a prima donna’s rage….
Fort Worth — In a year of bitter politics and “alternative facts,” Casa Mañana’s Evita—cutting and cool, with an undertow of passionate emotion—inevitably reads differently than it did when the company (and director Richard Stafford) last staged the show in 2011. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dark diamond of a musical shines like before—but now we can’t as easily sit back, complacent about the rallies and chants and stubborn divisions of a South American country in a galaxy (and time) far, far away.
We’re in the crowd, and she’s up there—leaning down from the balcony, arms wide like a mother declaring her love. Is the connection between us reality or illusion? How can we know the heart that beats beneath the image—and does it matter, if the illusion itself can change our lives, our government, our future?
Celebrity and politics. No one, she said herself, filled the “gap” between them like Eva Duarte de Perón, the poor girl and bit actress who (in the 1940s) became a global sensation—the Dior-clad First Lady of Argentina and champion of its bitterly poor descamisados (shirtless ones). “High flying, adored,” and despised by the Argentine military and upper crust, Evita’s memory (she died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33) still sparks devotion, confusion, contradiction. Was she heroine or huckster, saint or sinner? Just
as Webber and Rice intended, we begin and end in doubt, “at sixes and sevens” with Eva Perón and her story.
But it’s a hypnotic tale while it lasts.
Casa’s Evita comes out of history’s shadows, with Michael Sabourin’s dusky and minimal set design (simple benches and balcony suggest a church, a court, a movie house, a plaza) flanked by Samuel Rushen’s horizontal “old-projector” spotlights. Above, an endless newsreel of photographs reveals its own version of the life and times of Eva Perón—yet another intersection of fact and myth.
The show anchors itself in fierce performances from Dee Roscioli as Eva and Michael Hunsaker as Che (in this, as in most productions, played specifically as the Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara). Che is Eva’s harshest critic; to him, she is an “act” or “circus”—and for all Eva’s talk of helping the poor, Che says, she cares most for wealth and power. Their relationship is an endless confrontation in song—most thrillingly seen in the charged back-and-forth of the tigerish, circling “Waltz for Evita and Che.”
Hunsaker, who enthralled audiences as Judas in Casa’s 2016 Jesus Christ Superstar and Jean Valjean in 2015’s Les Misérables, commands our attention as he prowls the stage. His Che is flinty and sarcastic; eyes blazing, the closest this zealot comes to humor is his biting mockery of Argentina’s military and social elites—and the Peróns themselves. Che isn’t playing games. Hunsaker’s huge tenor can rock out or soar high; in “And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)” he streaks skyward into a falsetto high note that pierces through the vocal power onstage.
Roscioli, in an impressive Casa debut (she’s best-known for playing Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and in the national tour), is a toe-to-toe match for Hunsaker’s strength. Her Evita is a restless, relentless spirit right from the start—a striver on the move, with no trace of small-town ingénue. Roscioli’s resounding mezzo voice is well up to the demands of this outrageously big-range role, belting out demands in “Rainbow High,” airy as a feather in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.” And if her highest notes aren’t always gorgeous they’re certainly effective, with a dramatic edge that sells every lyric. The arc of Evita’s story takes her from hard striver to softer moments at the end of her life, and Roscioli handles both well.
Seth Womack brings a luscious, bell-clear tenor to the pivotal role of Magaldi, a tango singer Eva sweet-talks (“On This Night of a Thousand Stars”) into a trip to Buenos Aires, the “BA/Big Apple” of her dreams. “Eva, Beware of the City” he warns, but she can’t listen. Enrique Acevedo is stalwart and a bit un-knowable as colonel-turned-president Juan Perón, who actually may have loved the woman who boosted his career. Acevedo has a rich voice and an interesting, almost spoken-voice parlando singing style at times. Molly Franco sings sweetly as Peron’s suddenly displaced young Mistress (Eva throws her out in a twinkling), sitting mournfully with “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
Music director Stan Tucker (another Casa first-timer) gets plenty of electricity from his 10 musicians. It’s a challenge to work small on a show like this, of course, but the orchestra—great keyboards, front-forward horns and a killer drum adding the boom factor now and again—is more than up to snuff. Together, they find plenty of juice in the score’s cocktail of music styles, from Latin chants and rock ravers to tangos and love songs. (Cheers also to sound designer Kyle McCord for the admirable clarity of the production.)
Tammy Spencer’s designs start with the faded clothes of the poor and reach their apex in Evita’s shining princess gown. Favorite costume moment: a cluster of Argentine socialites mince stylishly across stage, refugees from My Fair Lady in Beaton-esque black and white—while, at the same time, a toy-soldier band of officers (in preposterous blue and cream uniforms) march comically on the other side of the stage, decrying “Perón’s Latest Flame.” (Director Stafford’s choreography is also on parade in this amusing and complex sequence.) And Catherine Petty-Rogers' wigs, taking Eva from rich brunette to increasingly angelic shades of blonde, are excellent.
Eva Perón woos us with Webber’s masterful melodies and Rice’s quirky verse—and misses our hearts by just enough to remind us that Evita was never meant to be a true Cinderella story. This is a fractured fairy tale with a suspect princess, but oh, admit it—aren’t those sometimes the best?