A new production of “Evita,” with rumored Broadway ambitions, has landed at Shakespeare Theatre Company. First conceived for the 2019 New York City Center (NYCC) Gala Presentation, then revised earlier this summer at the American Repertoire Theatre (A.R.T.) in Boston, this version amps up the politics and dials back the visual design of this classic Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Excellent choreography adds vitality to the megawatt showstopper score, but the production could otherwise use just a little touch more star quality.
…remains a crowd-pleaser, especially with Maltby and Solomonoff’s choreography amplifying Webber’s booming score.
Eva Perón née Duarte’s (Shereen Pimentel) remarkable ascension and rapid decline in mid-1900s Argentina is put under a fresh spotlight with Sammi Cannold’s occasionally heavy-handed direction. “Buenos Aires”—15-year-old Eva’s enthusiastic hello to the capitol—now holds a darker note, with a sequence depicting the sexual predation she faces from much older men. Usually sung with winking self-assurance, her line “Put me down for a lifetime of success / give me credit, I’ll find ways of paying” now reflects menace.
In the NYCC conception of this production, two actors split Eva into young and mature versions, a direction subsequently cut from A.R.T. and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. However, the outline of where the Young Eva once was remains, like a missing puzzle piece. The new focus on the naivety and vulnerability of the teenage Eva benefited from a split track, better juxtaposing the new framing of “Buenos Aires” with “Goodnight and Thank You,” the ode to a self-possessed Eva’s sexual social climbing. “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” and “Montage” also show the remnants of the cut role.
Another split casting persists in Che (Omar Lopez-Cepero and Eddie Gutiérrez billed as “Young Cadet”). Che, the cynical narrator of “Evita,” is a mercurial character. In some productions of “Evita,” he’s the Argentina-born revolutionary, Che Guevara and, in others, an everyman peasant. Here, Che is a jaded, former Peronista, and we see his younger self at the right hand of Juan Perón (Caesar Samayoa) while his alcoholic older self reflects upon history. While the classic musical chairs of Juan Perón’s military ascension remains intact, elsewhere Sammi Cannold depicts Argentina’s politics more literally. Anti-Peronistas, including Young Che, disrupt Eva’s funeral with a brawl in the opening song “Requiem for Evita.” Later, the oppression of Perón government is not-so-subtly conveyed in gagged citizens with military escorts.
While the politics may be too on the nose, the choreography by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff is perfection. A heated tango conveys the negotiation and seduction of Eva and Juan’s first meeting in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.” Ensemble numbers, like “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” deploy the large cast to fill the stage with exuberance. This “Evita” thrives in the bigger and bolder numbers of the score. “A New Argentina” particularly complements Pimentel’s belt. On the other hand, some of the quieter songs like “High Flying, Adored” falter with one crucial exception: “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” sung by Naomi Serrano as Perón’s mistress, is an aching standout of the show.
In a baby blue nightgown, Perón’s 16-year-old mistress, is one of the few characters besides Che and Eva who comes into full focus. Costume designer Alejo Vietti swathes the cast in gray. Only Che, Eva, and the Mistress don other hues. Although the monochromatic palette subdues the ensemble, the detailing of the costuming is anything but drab. Social divides are clear in the high fashion gowns, work clothes of the peasant class, and crisp military uniforms. Che draws focus in a deep red shirt and with a blue, Argentinian flag stitched to the back of his jacket. Eva’s early naiveté and later cult of personality as Santa Evita are reflected in her white wardrobe. In death, a hovering, white gown represents Eva— both ghostly and glamorous.
Jason Sherwood’s scenic design opens with that gown suspended above rows of white flowers. It lowers into the stage as Eva Perón is laid to rest and the flower beds rise to the rafters. Until the flowers reappear for the second act’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” the lackluster scenic design adds little new to the show. Arched porticos stand at the rear of the stage, occasionally rolled forward, while neon strip lights line the stage and offer colored illumination to match the occasion. A central pedestal sinks and rises, elevating Eva above the crowd and easing prop transitions. In their few featured scenes, the flower beds are visually beautiful, but overall the set is the weakest link in the production. Although sufficient for Harman Hall, a transfer of this production to larger venues would greatly benefit from a fresh design.
Cannold deserves credit for taking some risks with her direction of “Evita.” Even if not all stick the landing, in a show as often produced as this one, some novelty is appreciated. “Evita” remains a crowd-pleaser, especially with Maltby and Solomonoff’s choreography amplifying Webber’s booming score. Even with room for improvement, audiences should still find plenty to enjoy.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Ages 10+.
“Evita” runs through October 15, 2023 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Produced in association with the American Repertory Theater. For more information and tickets, go online.