Evita | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Prologue Theatre Productions

at the Court Theatre

Considerable controversy swirled around Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's pop opera Evita when it came out in 1976: Was the team glorifying its subject and the fashionable fascism she was associated with? After all, Evita was the follow-up to Jesus Christ Superstar; were Rice and Lloyd Webber putting Juan Peron's wife in the same league as God's son? The argument--whose main effect was to hype the two-disc concept album starring Julie Covington, Paul Jones, and Colm Wilkinson--continued when Evita came to the stage in London and then on Broadway in the next few years. Why would a songwriting team whose main markets were Britain and Broadway see the dead wife of a deposed Argentine dictator as a worthy subject for a pop opera unless they intended to glamorize her, and by extension the demagoguery, corruption, and repression she symbolized to English and American society?

Now, after a decade of scrutinizing people like Nancy Reagan and Imelda Marcos, we may find Eva Peron a good deal less foreign; rather than an extraordinary, aberrant figure we can brush off as the product of a society very different from ours, we can recognize her as the embodiment of a pattern neither foreign nor uncommon: an ambitious and amoral woman rises to real power by using her sex appeal and understanding of imagery and symbolism to help propel her man into her nation's presidency. Indeed, if Rice and Lloyd Webber had happened to write Evita a decade later than they did, they couldn't have helped but be accused of using Juan and Eva Peron as thinly disguised stand-ins for Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Scenes like the one in which Juan daydreams of taking a long vacation while Evita browbeats him into seeking more power, or in which Evita sleeps her way up through society as she graduates from small-time show-biz stardom to big-time political power, seem to come straight from the files of Donald Regan and Kitty Kelley. The time for Evita is more right than ever.

Still, as universal as Eva Peron's story is, it's tied to certain specific facts about her that don't bear ignoring. One is that she was sexy--not beautiful exactly, but slim and sensual enough to entice a stream of men and fragile enough to make her fellow Argentineans' hearts flutter. Thus the casting of the fairly hefty MaryBeth Bussert in the lead is a fatal flaw in Prologue Theatre Productions' non-Equity staging of the work. A solid if unexciting singer whose program credits suggest she's something of a Prologue stalwart, Bussert is by no means clumsy or comical in the role; she's simply unacceptable. Eva starts out as a sexy 15-year-old groupie who traps an oily singer into taking her with him to Buenos Aires, evolves into a glamorous model and movie actress whose talents extend to the casting couch, and peaks as an exquisite ornament on the arm of military leader Juan Peron before ending up as a gaunt cancer victim. Bussert's build (especially wrapped in the unflatteringly hippy dresses provided her by costume designers Cheri and Bryan Cory) makes none of her character's life stages remotely credible, a problem highlighted by the blandly matronly air she projects in songs like "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You" (directed to run her hands teasingly over her breasts, she looks instead like she's adjusting a new blouse she just picked up at Lane Bryant).

Zaftig opera singers are nothing new, of course; Marilyn Horne's Carmen at the Met in the mid-70s was magnificent. But MaryBeth Bussert isn't Marilyn Horne, and Andrew Lloyd Webber isn't Georges Bizet. With its modestly listenable but by no means brilliant score, Evita lacks the substance to work as sheer music. It's a theater piece that requires suspension of disbelief like any other show, and that's not possible here.

That's unfortunate, because in other respects this Evita is a respectable effort. If director Michael Hildebrand's against-type casting fails in Bussert's case, it pays off in Filipino singer Gabriel Lingat's performance as Juan. Lingat has an exciting baritone whose mix of rock and Broadway inflections are perfect for Lloyd Webber's music, and he easily overcomes his youth and ethnicity to create a convincing portrait of a South American military man who is never really comfortable grasping power but enjoys its trappings. And though lacking in cool machismo, Jeff Albaugh provides a strong ironic presence as Che Guevara, the Argentine student whose critical narration of the story prefigures his own destiny as a revolutionary hero.

Hildebrand's willingness to take chances--whether dictated by sensibility or budget--also leads him to dispense with much of the spectacle associated with Evita since Harold Prince directed its first stage production. Gone are the majestic funeral pageant that opens the show, the masses of poster-waving peasants, the tape-enhanced roars of the crowd that greet Eva's emotional aria "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Gone too is that omnipresent crutch of the contemporary musical theater: electronic amplification. Dispensing with microphones is a risk with any score these days--it means the audience has to actually work a little bit to listen, and audiences aren't accustomed to that--but it's especially risky given Evita's use of pop-rock musical idioms. The result is remarkably successful, thanks largely to the strong voices and excellent diction of the singers under Anita Greenberg's musical direction, and to the discipline of the 11-member offstage band conducted by percussionist Ken Kazin, which produces a solidly energetic sound while almost never obscuring the voices.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Margaret Norton.

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