Evita | ★★★½ | Burning Coal Theatre Company | Dorothea Dix Park, through June 27
Artistic director Jerome Davis hit the jackpot when he found the Spruill Building for Burning Coal Theatre’s outdoor production of Evita.
The back courtyard of the space in Dorothea Dix Park still has the feel of institutional menace, and bars line every window of the dilapidated three-story brick building that used to house a psychiatric hospital. Two perimeters of chain-link fence with barbed wire barricade the only exit onto Umstead Drive.
It’s a fitting venue for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which takes place in Argentina during the time of a strong-armed militia and centers on the rise of the mercurial, ambitious Eva Duarte, who catapulted from small-town obscurity to low-grade fame as a radio singer and actress before becoming first lady of Argentina and a world celebrity after her marriage to the charismatic military leader Juan Perón.
Though historians have reassessed the level of calculation in the philanthropic work that secured her the love of millions, Tim Rice’s libretto still casts a jaded eye upon her motives. It’s no accident that he enlists the revolutionary icon Che Guevara as her implacable inquisitor and critic throughout the show’s two acts.
But even with a venue this apt, a show still can’t just go coasting on its looks.Though veteran set designer Elizabeth Newton adorns lighting towers with union banners and patriotic bunting, this production leaves its set—a raked central platform—mysteriously empty.
Only the audience’s imagination, and the occasional political poster, convey the seamy dressing rooms and swank nightclubs, the military garrisons and Argentinean halls of power that Eva and Juan Perón must negotiate.
With such minimal stage design, Stacey Herrison’s costumes, including smart suits and dazzling evening wear for Iliana Rivera’s Eva, and a crisp tuxedo for Steven Roten’s charismatic Juan, go the farthest in this production to evoke the many layers of Argentinean society in the 1930s and 40s.
But if acting and music are left to anchor a musical that’s never fully grounded in a world, only the first was fully functional on opening night. Dancing, the third element of full-scale musicals, was dilatory and workmanlike in the absence of a choreographer.
Rivera and Roten bring no shortage of the star quality Rice references in the early number “Buenos Aires.” The pair are abetted ably enough by George Jack’s smarmy cameo performance as vocalist Agustin Magaldi, and yeoman’s work from an ensemble of political operatives and fixers including the funny, ever-dubious Juan Isler.
When Davis chooses to scatter the lines of Che Guevara among members of the ensemble instead of a single actor, the effect invests a voice of social and political conscience among the Argentinian people, and our own.
Robert Kaufman’s carny roustabout and an expressive Alexandra Finazzio set the cynical tone in “Oh, What a Circus,” before James Merkle’s radio journalist needles the powerful in “Peron’s Latest Flame.” Ashley Keefe circles in for the kill as a backstage dresser who knows Eva’s vulnerabilities in “High Flying, Adored.”
But Micah Meizlish’s muddy audio mix, bedeviled by intermittent wireless mikes, may well have exacerbated noticeable pitch problems throughout the cast.
While musical director Diane Petteway is a local legend by now, untransposed songs buried vocalists beneath their range or coerced them beyond sustainable heights enough times to notice.
Though individual numbers, including Rivera’s smoldering torch song, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” shone, musical issues needing additional management on opening night left the ultimate achievements of this show up in the air.
If launching the first live regional run of a full-scale Broadway musical following a pandemic had to entail challenges well beyond business as usual, it can’t have helped that Evita is the third production Burning Coal has launched in the last two weeks—immediately after Second Stage productions of Girls and Boys and Nine Lives at Murphey School Auditorium. It’s hard doing everything simultaneously. Will less-overscheduled companies meet the daunting demands of upcoming full-scale musicals more fully? Stay tuned.
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