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Rousuck's Review: A Timely "Evita" at Olney Theatre Center

Olney Theatre Center

If you didn’t know that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote “Evita” four decades ago, you might think this musical about the role of celebrity in politics was brand new.

The idea of a celebrity running for office is the overriding theme of Olney Theatre Center’s re-imagined, eye-opening production of this musical look at the life of former Argentine first lady Eva Peron.

Unlike director Harold Prince’s original interpretation of the show as an examination of media manipulation, at Olney we see Evita manufacturing her own fame and using it to catapult her husband, Juan Peron, to the presidency.

A microphone on a stand becomes a major prop in director Will Davis’ inspired interpretation. Commandeer the mike, get into power, win over the people – as Evita does – and you can tell them just about anything.

Christopher d’Amboise’s marvelous choreography illustrates this from the start, giving the chorus stylized, often-synchronized movements. The slick chorus members look like individuals, but they think and act like a single-minded mass.

The crowd is so blinded by Evita, they let her get away with robbery – she literally picks their pockets. In the number, “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” she opens a suitcase and distributes cash to a circle of needy citizens. They pass it hand to hand until it winds up back in Evita’s suitcase – a brilliant bit of choreographed storytelling.

To chronicle Evita’s calculated climb to fame, Rice and Lloyd Webber created an “everyman” narrator, they called Che. From the original production on, Che has usually been portrayed as Che Guevara.

But at Olney, Robert Ariza – in the production’s best performance -- offers a distinctive take on this character. Instead of playing him as the fully formed, mature Guevara, Ariza shows us the young man Che actually would’ve been at the start of Evita’s rise. After witnessing the self-aggrandizing ascension of the Perons, it’s not difficult to picture him radicalized into the archetypal revolutionary, Guevara.

Ariza also deepens this angry, cynical character by giving him some divided loyalties. Heated as his denunciation of Evita may be, he sheds a tear at her death at the end. That ending, by the way, is excessively quiet -- perhaps too much of a whimper for the larger-than-life tale of the Perons.

Ariza’s singing is as strong and assured as his delivery of Che’s sly commentary; in the “Rainbow Tour” number, he puts extra emphasis on his description of Evita as her husband’s “trump card.” And, he aces an added song, “The Lady’s Got Potential,” a rock-and-roll number borrowed from the 1996 movie.

If Rachel Zampelli’sEvita were as complex as Ariza’sChe, this would be an extraordinary revival. But as an opportunistic Argentine icon, Zampelli seems awfully all-American. In addition, her singing is frequently shrill, although she does justice to the show’s signature song, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”

Nick Duckart gives a solid performance as Juan Peron. But – possibly by design -- there’s not much chemistry between the Perons, at least not at the preview I attended. Even in their first, presumably charged meeting -- in the song, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” -- we don’t see their lust for each other, or even Evita’s lust for him as her conduit to power.

Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado situates all of the action in a ballroom under construction. As Evita’s circumstances improve, the room gets chandeliers and fancy chairs. Why a ballroom? Perhaps because politics, image-making and, yes, celebrity, are all a dance – in this case, masterfully choreographed and startlingly fresh.

In our current political climate, being famous, rallying crowds with big talk, and dancing around the issues appear to be enough to secure a presidential candidacy. Olney Theatre Center’s “Evita” doesn’t just take artistic risks, it’s also unsettlingly timely.

--J. Wynn Rousuck

“Evita” continues at Olney Theatre Center through July 31 (thanks to a 1-week extension announced 7/13)

Music used in the audio feature is from the 2006 London Cast Recording of "Evita" (Really Useful Records CD 9855975)

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.