As the Asolo Repertory Theatre has taken to presenting well-known, oft-seen musicals to open its season for the past few years, it’s natural to ask: How do you breathe new life into shows as familiar—perhaps even sometimes a bit dusty—as these? The current production of Evita answers the question with great staging and choreography by Josh Rhodes, and a cast that’s led by the dynamic Ana Isabelle in the title role.
Of course, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show is not as old as some past season productions, like My Fair Lady or South Pacific. But it’s certainly been performed frequently in the area, albeit often in community theaters without the budget and resources of Asolo Rep. Still, whether it’s your favorite show or not (and honestly, it’s not mine, despite the often thrilling music), you’ll be caught up in the tale of Argentina’s charismatic first lady, Eva Peron.
Charismatic the actress playing Evita really must be, as well as gifted with a powerful voice. Nuance and subtlety are not the hallmarks of this show nor of its lead character. She must demand the stage as well as command it, and Isabelle does that, aided by a strong ensemble, intriguing set and costume designs, and an orchestra guided by music director Sinai Tabak that makes the most of the sometimes challenging score.
The show begins with the announcement of Eva’s death to a stunned group of moviegoers in Bueno Aires in 1952, and it’s apparent from the outset that Eva, even in death, has style, as her “body” descends from the heights to the stage in flowing, white ethereal garments. It’s a dramatic image, but there’s not much time to linger over it, for Evita, in going backwards to tell the tale of the ambitious, dying-young Eva Duarte, must keep moving at a feverish clip.
She’s still a teenager, poor and illegitimate, when she connects with tango singer Agustin Magaldi (Victor Souffrant). He may seem vain and preening, but you can’t really blame him for not wanting to take Eva with him to the big city of Buenos Aires, since she’s bound to trample over him on her way to the top. As men pass through her doorway (“Goodnight and Thank You”), she eventually meets with Juan Peron (Nick Duckart) and hitches her wagon to his star (“I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You”), blithely dismissing his young mistress (Gizel Jimenez) while antagonizing both the military’s macho men and the revolutionary Che (Justin Gregory Lopez), who watches her career with cynicism.
Lopez and Duckart both provide strong performances, with Lopez especially scoring on “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” just one of the examples of how Rhodes’ choreography lifts the show and makes it exciting. But Isabelle dominates, whether stepping smoothly from costume to costume (eye-poppers by Brian C. Hemesath) on her “Rainbow Tour,” rousing the crowd with her balcony/staircase number as she delivers “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” or facing quieter moments of vulnerability on “You Must Love Me” (a song from the movie version of Evita that is included here and serves as a showcase for tango dancers Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia).
Combined with the larger-than-life visuals of Paul Tate DePoo III’s scenic design and Alex Basco Koch’s projections (of enthralled crowds or the idolized Evita), Isabelle, Rhodes and the entire cast do indeed give Evita a fresh lease on life.
Evita continues through Dec. 30; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.