By Bradley Rohlf
A spectacular staging of “Evita” opens the 52nd season at The Repertory Theatre St. Louis. Director Rob Ruggiero executes a strong, emotion-filled vision of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s take on the life of Eva Perón.
Beginning at the end, a radio address informs the people of Argentina that Eva Perón, Spiritual Leader of the Nation, has died. The country goes into mourning for their first lady, affectionately known as Evita.
Even if you have no historical context for the life and character of Eva Perón, Luke Cantarella’s set gives a big hint. A two- or three-story mural portrait of Eva Perón looms center stage at the Loretto Hilton. The image is aged, as if flown in from a wall somewhere outside Buenos Aires where it has been neglected for decades.
Eva’s smile is warm and welcoming, her face framed by a halo-like glow. To many Argentinians, she was more than a political figure, and this massive portrait suggests a saint.
The requiem is interrupted by Pepe Nufrio, who plays Che, a bit of a Greek chorus to place the story in context. Not merely a narrator, but taking on a character his own, Nufrio’s appearance and manner are that of a student revolutionary.
While some of the facts of Evita’s history are contested, for this story we are presented with Che’s perspective. He is sympathetic to her desire to create a better life for the working class, but critical of her methods.
Michelle Aravena is Eva, the natural daughter of a wealthy man who abandoned her mother and family to poverty. But she has a drive and a dream, and at fifteen years old takes off with a touring singer – her ticket to the big city, Buenos Aires.
Through social maneuvering on the shoulders of a series of lovers, Eva finds herself a successful radio and movie actress. At a charity relief concert she meets Perón, a military officer and popular political figure, played by Sean MacLaughlin. They soon begin an affair that eventually becomes their marriage.
Evita’s modest upbringing paired with her radio influence help the two garner popular support from the powerful labor unions. This leads Perón to the Presidency of Argentina. The rest of the action takes place on a backdrop of political tensions between Perón’s populist policies and the military’s desire for power.
Aravena succeeds in displaying the ambiguity of the historical Evita’s character. Sometimes we don’t know if she is driven by a passion for the people’s plight, or just by blind ambition. And maybe Eva didn’t always know, either. On top of these complexities, Aravena is a powerhouse performer, never faltering in her delivery of demanding choreography and iconic melodies.
The story as a whole is sweeping, and without prior historical context, some nuance is lost. But this is a musical, not a history book, and Ruggiero’s entire creative team succeeds in carrying the audience through the narrative.
Gustavo Zajac’s smart choreography reflects and directs the tone of the show. The movements he creates complete characters and emotions. This necessary element to a show with such a broad narrative is seamless, with only one or two moments where a performer was less than precise.
John Lasiter’s lighting design aids in punctuating scenes and feelings. Once again, a necessary element delivering full potential to a show that could be daunting to stage well.
“Evita” is a challenge to bring to stage. The company has to build a historic world that many audiences are unfamiliar with, and on every level this creative team and ensemble delivers. Behind the story are many deeper real-life complexities, but this production succeeds in entertaining and carrying the audience through, regardless of how many history degrees they may or not possess.
“Evita,” is presented from Sept. 5 through Sept. 30 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ Mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. For tickets or more information, visit www.repstl.org.
Photos by Eric Woolsey