Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for — but not printed in

— the

May 9, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At Bristol Riverside: `Evita’

Oh what a circus! Oh what a show!" croons Che,

the cigar chomping revolutionary who serves as the antagonistic story

teller in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s "Evita."

Of course, Che is sarcastically referring to the Argentine people’s

excesses of emotion on learning of the death of Eva Peron, but his

words nicely describe Bristol Riverside Theater’s lavish new

production.

With a stage populated with over 30 capable singers and dancers,

backed

by a live (but small) orchestra, and first rate production values,

rarely has such a high voltage musical crowned the stage of a local

regional theater. "Evita" will be playing through May 27,

having already been extended a week due to high ticket demand.

As most people know, "Evita" begins and ends with the death

of Eva Peron (Bethe B. Austin), the popular mistress and wife of

Argentine

dictator Juan Peron. But in between are enough catchy tunes and

colorful

pageantry to raise the dead, or at least the comatose.

In a production so dominated by music and spectacle, the storyline,

almost by necessity, becomes of secondary importance. Evita’s

fact-tinged

rags to riches story, such as it is, begins with a poor Eva Duarte,

still a teenager, and looking to make it big as a radio and film

actress.

She attaches herself to a popular Tango singer named Augustin Migaldi

(Carl Wallnau) who brings her to the big city of Buenos Aires and

gives her her first big break. Eva seizes the opportunity and we see

her rise to fame and fortune as richer and richer men, all flush-faced

and disheveled, continually emerge from her boudoir.

Soon Eva encounters Juan Peron (James Van Treuren), a rising star

in his own right within Argentina’s military government. She makes

a play for him, succeeds, and is next seen booting Peron’s mistress

(Elisa Sagardia) from his bed. Success continues for the couple, and

Eva encourages Juan to take control of the country because he has

the workers on his side. Eva appears before the throng, sings

"Don’t

Cry For Me Argentina" to the masses and becomes their beloved

icon. But disease strikes early and despite

having lived a life garnering love and blessings, Evita dies young.

Throughout the show, Che (Brad Little) the revolutionary storyteller

dressed in green army fatigues, pops up from time to time to help

fill in the details of Evita’s story. His penchant for mixing in a

good dose of skeptical chiding acts as a sane antidote to Evita’s

relentlessly fairy tale-like story.

Bethe B. Austin is nicely cast as Eva Peron. It’s a demanding role,

but her singing voice is extremely versatile and up to the task. With

no apparent effort, she is able to belt out a raging cry for justice,

fists aimed at the sky, and then quickly downshift into a mournful

tune that is as delicate as fine silk. All this without so much as

a furtive clearing of the throat.

But Austin is also a fine actress. With the entire production swirling

around her, she is able to meet the difficult challenge of portraying

an extremely charismatic woman and not come out looking second best.

(An actor’s common nightmare is to appear unworthy of the character

she or he is playing.)

But Austin does much more. Her performance is shaded with a complex

nuance that seamlessly depicts how Evita’s full-blown arrogant

ambitions are buttressed against a surprisingly human vulnerability.

Austin allows us to see Evita as the people of Argentina see her, and

we immediately understand why Evita is so well loved.

Brad Little is her perfect counterpoint as Che, the show’s narrator.

With his jocular skepticism aimed at Evita’s excesses, he is the voice

of somewhat bitter reason. Remarkably, amidst all the hoopla of

dancing and banners, he never becomes a party-pooper. Little is also

an excellent singer and his rich tones of sturdy assurance adds to his

likability.

James Van Treuren as Juan Peron is admirable as Eva’s second fiddle.

His character is an odd one in that despite being the president of the

country, he is reduced to the backseat of the play. He possesses the

proper restraint, staying well between the lines of what is expected

of him, yet always maintaining a quiet dignity. His understated

performance

certainly adds to the success of the show.

Carl Wallnau and Elisa Sagardia are also strong in their brief roles.

Wallnau heartily adds a welcomed comic touch with his mussy and inept

Tango singer. Sagardia as Juan Peron’s ousted lover has an elegant

voice, faintly erotic, that is reminiscent of a young Kate Bush.

Edward Keith Baker’s direction is appropriate and workmanlike. He

has a talent for continually reinvigorating the audience’s eye, never

letting it keep its gaze in one spot for too long. He does this by

keeping his characters constantly on the move, putting every nook

and cranny of the performance space to good use, and sometimes letting

characters pop up in unexpected places.

Baker is a skillful craftsman and knows how to wring emotional moments

out of each and every scene. When a scene calls for bombastic pomp

(a necessary touch in a play about politicians) or a refreshing grace

that is meant to reveal the inner lives of the characters, Baker

delivers.

He proves the old theater maxim that a good director is an audience’s

best friend.

Characters’ stage movements as well as their comings and goings are

also nicely facilitated by Nels Anderson’s carefully arranged set

design. Characters move about the stage as naturally as flowing water.

Although the set is multi-level, it is still simple and elegant

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice premiered "Evita" in the

United States in 1979. Since then it has played Broadway, toured the

world, and been made into a massive motion picture starring Madonna.

But rarely, it seems, has a production been so carefully and lovingly

nurtured as this one is at Bristol Riverside Theater. (It’s not all

grand — the orchestra in particular seems to clunk and rattle from

time to time.)

But this production has an elegance that is enchanting and lingers

in the imagination long after leaving the theater. When people try

to explain just why theater is so much more exhilarating than movies

or television, this is the kind of show they’re talking about.

— Jack Florek

Evita, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe

Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. The Eva Peron musical with lyrics by

Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, featuring Bethe Austin as Eva.

$32 to $39. Performances continue to Sunday, May 27.


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