BWW Review: Ensemble and Direction Galvanize EVITA at Eight O'Clock Theatre

BWW Review: Ensemble and Direction Galvanize EVITA at Eight O'Clock Theatre

EVITA may be Andrew Lloyd Webber's finest work. I know, I know, The Phantom of the Opera and Cats are certainly more popular, and Jesus Christ Superstar is more groundbreaking. But EVITA is his apex. Tim Rice's cynical lyrics needed the perfect framework, and Lloyd Webber provided him with his finest score yet.

The show started as a concept album featuring future-Valjean Colm Wilkinson as Che and Julie Covington as Evita, who had a UK hit with "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Then it exploded onstage in England (making Elaine Page a star) and Broadway, the latter winning Tony Awards and re-establishing Lloyd-Webber with Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and some clever dancing soldiers. The movie hit theaters 21 years ago, with Madonna in the title role, and it did not capture the allure of the stage show. (For once in her life, Madonna just wasn't fiery enough for the part.) And more recently the Ricky Martin-led re-interpretation of EVITA hit Broadway again, and added the movie-made "You Must Love Me" but changed the clever dancing soldiers.

Eight O'Clock Theatre's dive into EVITA is modeled after the show's more recent Broadway turn. It boasts a brilliant ensemble, a marvelous set, stunning sequences, extraordinary direction, and some incredible performances. The show looked so good technically that I overheard people afterward say that they were shocked that this was a community production and not a professional one.

Brian Yarbrough as Che, the show's active narrator, is superb. He may not look exactly like Che (he's missing the long hair and full beard); with his neatly shaved head, he resembles Miguel Ferrer with a touch of Chris Daughtry and La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. But he carries the show on his shoulders and does so with aplomb and knockout vocals. Highlights include "High Flying, Adored" and his recounting of Eva's European exploits in "Rainbow Tour."

Gloria Rice as Eva Peron, the stunning first lady of Argentina who died too young, has her moments and she has some style. She's a strong actress, and some of her songs are fine, most notably ballads like "You Must Love Me" and "Lament." But some of the numbers were just too big for her voice, and the vocals (such as in "Buenos Aires") came off shrieking and shrill. Her signature tune, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," was hit and miss. She needs to have the sort of cunning you can see in Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, the glamor of Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, all mixed with our current First Lady, Melania Trump. The part of Evita needs that extra spark of star quality, plus a powerful voice; it's a belter's dream role. Rice's voice did not properly tackle the belting numbers. Which is a shame, because Ms. Rice is obviously quite talented. But we want Eva to be bitchy, not pitchy.

Rand Smith as Juan Peron could not be better. He has impressed me in every show he has done, both at EOT (1776) and at freeFall (Assassins and The Light in the Piazza). And he is at his best here, with his powerful singing voice and acting chops. Is it possible that I prefer his Peron to Bob Gunton's and Michael Cerveris' performance (not to mention Jonathan Pryce from the movie, which goes without saying)?

As Peron's mistress, Priscilla McLain nails her number, the second best song in the show, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Yes, it's a song that does not move the plot forward and is there simply to give the actress playing Evita a rest, but it's so gorgeous--and so gorgeously rendered here--that we don't care if it's just a beautiful-sounding trifle. McLain is so strong that we want to follow the mistress' story for more than just one song.

Derek Baxter brings out qualities in the Tango singer, Augustin Migaldi, that I have not seen before. He is very entertaining and makes "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" his own.

The ensemble (descamisados, aristocrats, military men) sounded spot on, and they were the real stars of this production. (But would people go see a show called Descamisados?) Many of the ensemble members are obviously high schools students, which is typical for community theatre, but they're all quite talented. And their harmonies are tight and vocals nothing short of brilliant. The ensembles work on "And The Money Kept Rolling In," sung along with Yarbrough's galvanizing presence, is stunning. So kudos to Ben Allen, Tyler Arnold, Melissa Barnhizer, Coral Furtado, Kate Gaudet, Faythe Kelly, Rick Laitenberger, Dee Lynch, Quint Paxton, Michelle Stratton, Daniel Thayer, Wil Toro, Jennifer Trieste, Jenelle Vinachi and Katrina Young.

Special mention must be paid to young Dean Yurecka, who shines in every one of his scenes; Michelle Chrien and Chloe Netzel, who provide stirring vocals at the start of "Santa Evita"; and James Cass, who as a monocle-donning aristocrat looks like Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. Mr. Monopoly).

There are some minor issues. The stage hands should wear period costumes when they move the stairs in full audience view onstage (it's startling and less professional seeing someone in a modern-day black t-shirt moving the set). The video footage that starts the show is decent, but nothing more. A light reflecting on a make-up mirror in "Rainbow High" kept blinding the audience at various times. And even though this is the more current version of EVITA, I really miss the dancing military men in my favorite song of the show, "Peron's Latest Flame."

But James Grenelle once again proves why he's one of the top local directors. His staging is inspired, his choreography unique. He has guided a beautiful-looking production. Terri Rick's costumes were for the most part winning, especially Eva's "Rainbow High" angelic-white attire and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" gown. That said, the military costumes left something to be desired.

Tom Hansen's set design, aided by Dalton Hamilton's creative lighting, was a thing of beauty. I loved how Eva's abundant luggage created its own platform for the performers at one point.

Best of all, musical director Jeremy D. Silverman's orchestra was on fire. Instrumentally, this is one tight, fantastic-sounding show. With Mr. Silverman on the keyboards and conducting, we have the following individuals to thank for such a great performance: Dan Mockensturm on guitar, Dan Kalosky on bass, trombonist Colleen Chrien, Joe Bonelli and Chris Howard on trumpet, Diana Belcher and Tony Fuoco on reeds, Valeria Frege on violin, and especially Brooke Stuart on the drums.

EVITA is a fitting show for the current political culture, but being Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece, it works anytime. And any issues aside, Eight O'Clock Theatre has created a work of theatrical magic. I agree with the person I overheard after the show--it really is shocking that this is a mere community theatre and not a professional one.

EOT's production of EVITA plays at the Largo Culture Center until March 19th.

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