BWW Review: EVITA at Olney Theatre Center - Stunning and Innovative
If you have seen the Broadway production with Patti LuPone , Mandy Patinkin, and Bob Gunton (which I was lucky to see), do not expect extravagant staging, a huge cast, military uniforms galore, large banners waving, many lighted torches, and a balcony where one can sing to the masses. This could very well be the very first EVITA without a balcony ever.
Olney Theatre Center has redesigned this seminal hit musical and gets to the essentials of the story of Eva Peron who rose from a singer/prostitute, to a "B" actress, to the first lady of Argentina. Director Will Davis gives a new interpretation that cuts to the chase of this improbable but true saga.
Together with Choreographer Christopher d'Amboise's powerful , exquisite, and synchronized style of dance makes this an EVITA not to be missed. You may recognize the name d'Amboise. His father Jacques is a legend in the ballet world made famous by the superb PBS documentary film about his work with the National Dance Theatre in 1984, "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'", a televised documentary which even won an Academy Award. If you have not seen it, make the effort. It was such an honor to meet him after the performance of EVITA. The dance moves must be in the genes for his daughter Charlotte has been nominated twice for a Tony Award. Christopher likewise has been nominated for a Tony Award for Webber's SONG AND DANCE.
Now a little older, Christopher is making quite a name for himself as a choreographer and he excels in it. No doubt a Helen Hays nomination will be forthcoming. His movement is very fluid and reminded me of the work of Paul Taylor. He has worked with two giants of dance, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. It is a joy to watch this terrific ensemble of dancers (Jamie Eacker, Ashleigh King, Nick Lehan, Nurney, Maria Rizzo, and the dance captain, Kristin Yancy).
The show begins with these performers entering from the back of the theater singing the "Requiem for Evita". It's very stirring. The show ends the same way as the ensemble strolls through the audience after Eva's death leaving the stark set only lit by candles. A very moving experience thanks to the set design by Arnulfo Maldonado and lighting by Colin K. Bills.
But to make any EVITA work, you need three keys to success. First, you need a gullible yet powerful Juan Peron who falls for Evita and appreciates her for what she gives to his regime. Nick Duckart fits the bill. His stature, presentation, and voice is exactly what the role requires and he deliverers.
A simple microphone center stage replaces the balcony scene and it is all that Rachel Zampelli needs to pull off this challenging role of Evita. She has a lovely soprano voice and shines in all of the numbers she has. Wait till you see her "Don't Cry for Me Argentina". I wonder what it would have been like if she had a balcony. Instead, she moves the portable microphone close to the audience. ..a great affect.
In a real change from the original production is the depiction of the narrator, known as Che. Here Robert Ariza is just stunning in this complicated role. He guides us through the life of Eva's story in a charming but suspect way. He gives this Che a much more rock and roll feel to his character than Mandy Patinkin ever did and it works. This is especially seen in a number borrowed from the 1996 film "The Lady's Got Potential".
Two other performers stand-out. Eacker leaves the ensemble to play Peron's mistress and gives a great rendition of "Another Suitcase in a Another Hall". Playing the musician who discovers Eva, Magaldi, is the slick and sleazy Jonathan Akinson who seems to relish his part.
This production's success also in large part is due to the work of OTC's Associate Artistic/Musical Director Christopher Youstra who leads a talented group of seven musicians highlighted by the wonderful work of cellist Catherine Mikelson. Look for Youstra playing the accordion in "On This Night of a Thousand Stars". How many hats does Youstra have besides conducting and playing keyboards? He also did the wonderful orchestrations to make this EVITA sound spectacular.
While the costumes may not replicate Broadway, Ivania Stack does an admirable job, especially outfitting Eva. She designed a spectacular gown for her big number.
Finally, Director Will Davis should be commended for his work. I had a chance to observe him standing in the rear of the theater watching his actors perform during the show with a huge smile on his face. He has done a commendable job.
If you have never seen Evita (or the film with Madonna), do yourself a favor, sit back , relax, and be transported to Argentina and enjoy.
EVITA runs until July 24, 2016. Olney has week-end matinees and also a Wednesday matinee on July 13
There are post-show discussions on July 9 and 16 following the 2 p.m. matinee.
For tickets, call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
And put in your calendar "The Summer Celebration" at OTC, a free all day event on August 20, 2016 with free readings of new plays, a beer garden, food trucks, live music, a free screening of "Mary Poppins", master classes, and a used costume and prop sale. At 8 p.m., there will be a special concert, "The Sounds of Summer" with Tracey Lynn Olivera, Rachel Ziampelli, and Bobby Smith. Tickets are $35 with discounts for members, students, and kids.
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh