Review: Reimagined EVITA 'High Flying, Adored' at Bucks County Playhouse

Evita is onstage at Bucks County Playhouse through October 30.

By: Sep. 26, 2022
Review: Reimagined EVITA 'High Flying, Adored' at Bucks County Playhouse

Bucks County Playhouse's reimagined Evita, directed by Will Pomerantz, is one of the most creatively staged productions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice hit to come along in years. Evita, which chronicles the rise and fall of Eva Perón [Gabriella Enriquez], the former First Lady of Argentina, shines a spotlight on the controversial icon whose life and death once lit the world's stage. Eva Perón is given the full spectrum treatment in this production; explored from every angle, Eva's inner psychology and public perception are thoroughly understood here by both the creative team and cast. A tone of cynicism runs through this production, avoiding getting lost in the black and white opinions held for a woman referred to as both a saint and a whore, and effectively exploring the grey. Eva Perón may have been both worshipped and reviled, but she was, as her early death exemplified, ultimately as human as anyone else.

Review: Reimagined EVITA 'High Flying, Adored' at Bucks County Playhouse This Pomerantz-led production is set in a tango bar in Buenos Aires and begins in 1962 on the ten-year anniversary of Eva Perón's death. A group of Perónistas (supporters of former president of Argentina, Juan Perón, played by a perfectly cast and capable Eric Ulloa) have gathered in secret to celebrate the memory of their beloved Eva, and remember the glory years of Juan Perón's presidency. We travel back in time to the grief-stricken hysteria surrounding Eva Perón's death in 1952, and once more to the beginning of Eva's story as a teenager desperate for a taste of life in the big city. From there we launch headfirst-as Eva herself did-into her rise to fame and power. The scenic design by Anna Louizos is immersive, aided by Mike Billings' lighting design. Eva's fevered and calculated climb to the top of the world's stage, both literal and figurative (the use of a ladder and staircase are smartly and deliberately utilized in the storytelling), is told in all its sweeping grandness without ever abandoning the setting of the tango bar, grounding the story in its gritty underbelly.

The musical is narrated by Che [Pablo Torres]. Typically portrayed as a radical revolutionary, Torres' Che is an everyman, a quieter voice of doubtful opposition on the sidelines. He's a knowing skeptic, who, while never getting swept up in the showmanship of Eva Perón, is nonetheless brought down by it, swept under and silenced. Che (a role beautifully and easily sung by Torres) leads us through Eva (then Duarte)'s journey as a young girl, the illegitimate child of a middle-class man, prepared to claw her way out of the life she was born into. She does so by latching herself romantically to tango singer Magaldi, a convincingly smarmy and swoony-voiced Devin Cortez, who Eva uses as her ticket to a new life in Buenos Aires. She arrives in wide-eyed, arms wide open, lusty for life fashion, and is swiftly brought down to earth. This production is meticulously and thoughtfully staged; every movement serves a purpose. In the case of Eva's introduction to the city, her lesson in the ways of men ("Argentine men call the sexual shots") is learned through their unwanted pawing at her, and the miming of a sex act with a microphone. It's a creative way to both make a harsh point, and foreshadow her future career as a radio star, while showing how she'd get there. That quick moment informs who this production's Eva is, first and foremost a calculating mind, backed up by unbridled determination. We see that Eva is not necessarily born with innate sexual prowess, but that she learns that sexuality is the language in which she needs to communicate with men to achieve what she wants.

Marcos Santana's choreography further informs this language. Tango is used not so muchReview: Reimagined EVITA 'High Flying, Adored' at Bucks County Playhouse to symbolize sex as it is to, through movement, show Eva's social and political ascent. Gabriella Enriquez is a magnetic Eva and a powerful actor, purposeful with every glance, and equally as dazzling movement-wise and vocally. The quality with which she carries herself makes it very easy to believe that her Eva will get whatever she sets her sites on, and understand why her supporters were so drawn to her.

Eva climbs her way up the social ladder and becomes a semi-successful actress, setting herself up in the perfect position to meet Colonel Juan Perón at a charity concert that he has organized. Eva's seduction of Juan Perón in 'I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You', has innuendo built into the lyrics, but here the message (once again informed by Marcos Santana's use of tango) that comes across most clearly is "I'd be good for your career."

Message received. Eva is now the new woman in the rising political leader's life, and promptly discards Perón's mistress [Maria Bilbao] from his home (and his bed). Bilbao's gorgeously, warmly sung "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" is heartbreakingly staged to contrast Eva's cunning. Juan Perón's young mistress never (or has not yet) learned what Eva did, and she'll now be back out on the street, swallowed up by the city.

Review: Reimagined EVITA 'High Flying, Adored' at Bucks County Playhouse Eva's introduction to the Argentinian upper class is met with both resistance and nastiness. They suggest that it's Eva who is using Juan, and not the other way around. This production's not-so-ambitious Perón is aware of this and knows very plainly that he would not be a success at all without her. And he's fine with it. The musical is already called Evita, but this production makes it clear that it is very much the Eva Peron Show, with the character of Juan Perón a side act to Eva's Greatest Show on Earth. While the upper-class scorn at her, the lower class, the descamisados, the "shirtless" worship her. The staging plays into this, and further into the dynamic of Juan Perón as ornamental. The crowds of the lower-class flock to Eva, wherever she is on the stage, even as Juan Peron, the one actually campaigning to be the leader of Argentina, stands on platforms alone, seemingly unnoticed. Eva's firm grip on the public and Juan Perón's rise to power is questioned by our narrator Che (representative of the real "voice of the people"), who, as he continues to become more and more disenfranchised, loses more and more of his shirt.

Eva's relentless hunger for power culminates at the beginning of Act 2 with Juan PerónReview: Reimagined EVITA 'High Flying, Adored' at Bucks County Playhouse becoming President of Argentina, and Eva First Lady. The musical's most famous number 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' typically begins as Eva steps onto the balcony of the Casa Rosada, a goddess, high above her people. This production makes a surprising and inspired choice instead as Eva unexpectedly enters on the ground, an absolute vision in costume designer's Michael McDonald's glittering white ballgown. She makes her way through the crowds, a public acknowledgment that she is with them still, one of them. What's important to her supporters is that they feel she is one of them. What's important to Eva is that she knows she no longer is. She does not stay down on the ground for long, soon ascending the staircase to the balcony.

Eva's establishment of her place on the world's stage plays in front of us, as does her husband's corrupt politics. Set against the ever-growing backdrop of Che's criticism and the country's turmoil, Eva appears to the Argentinian lower-class as a "saint", literally, in a tongue-in-cheek, walking portrait of the Immaculate Heart of Mary-head covering, golden halo and all- even as she proceeds to nefariously mishandle her Foundation's money for charity.

Though Eva's blinding determination for success are stronger and fiercer than ever, her body is failing her, to the consternation of herself more than anyone else. She is dying of cancer and fighting it with both hands and bared teeth. 'Waltz for Eva and Che', which is typically portrayed as not only a reckoning between Eva and her biggest detractor, but also as a dance with death, is not done so in this production. It's bar brawl, in which Eva, not only fighting for more power, but fighting for her life, knocks down her opposer, and literally steps over him as he bleeds. Eventually, Eva, who despite her rapid decline has set her sights on the vice presidency, is forced to concede. She must admit defeat for the first time in her life as it comes to an end. Gabriella Enriquez is especially effective in these scenes. Her Eva is desperate to live, and watching her lose that battle is devastating, even as Torres as Che, equally effective in these ending scenes, is shirtless and bleeding, a living, breathing example of the harm Eva and Juan Perón have caused the country. After Eva Perón's death, she is embalmed, frozen forever in an eternal tribute to the First Lady's glory, only for her body to disappear before it can be placed on its final pedestal.

As the musical ends, we return to the tango bar in 1962 which has shown us all the story of Eva Perón's rise and fall. Her underground supporters are still there, but so is Che. He shows us the blood on his body, before running up the stairs and out of the bar. What we're left with is the ghost of a memory and a resonating, complicated sadness for someone as hated as she was loved. Bucks County Playhouse's production is a thorough, nuanced, beautifully produced examination of Eva Perón's complex legacy. At the end of this incredible production, you will leave wondering how you could allow yourself to cry at Eva's death, while simultaneously wondering how could you not.

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