Splendid revival of musical recounting posthumous path of Perón

By: May. 14, 2024
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Eva Perón led one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th Century. But so did her corpse.

After the former First Lady of Argentina died in 1952 at 33, after a life that inspired plays, books, movies, musicals and dance productions, she was such a charged figure everybody knew that simple burial would not do.

Her husband Juan Perón wanted her preserved — at least as long as it took to make a memorial larger than the Eiffel Tower, “that could be seen in space.” But when he was overthrown by a military junta, it had to hide the body, as if to dim her memory. Eventually it made its way to Milan, Italy, but was exhumed and sent to Spain, where Perón was exiled and living with his third wife. They kept it in the dining room.

When Perón was put back in power — a figurehead for a right wing military group — did the body return to Argentina for eventual burial. 

So when Gustavo Ott created his musical “Mummy in the Closet: Evita’s Return” in 2009, it wasn’t meant as a dark satire or spooky exaggeration.

“I like to think of the play as a work of musical documentary theater,” says Mariano Caligaris, director of the  sparkling revival at GALA Hispanic Theatre, in the program notes.

The indignities suffered by the corpse of Eva Perón over so many years “were kind of a dress rehearsal for what would happen not only to the Argentine people, but also to Latin America,” says the program synopsis, likely also written by Ott. “Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, to true events — and even to events occurring in 2024 — is no coincidence.” 

Indeed, Ott adds in a press release for the revival that the work is more relevant now than it was when it first appeared 16 years ago. “This work is about us, right here and right now,” Ott says, who says the work about “a terrible idea that has become popular again: criminals taking power.”

The production is also a grand homecoming of sorts for Ott, who is returning to GALA as the theater’s well-qualified new producing artistic director, taking over from his friend and theater co-founder Hugo Medrano who died a year ago at 80. 

The new “Mummy in the Closet” is a sure-handed version of the earlier work, with Fran Tapia from GALA’s “On Your Feet” glittering in the title role in an array of white gowns (by Becca Janny). That trademark, arms up pose that indicates her grandeur as leader of the people is never diminished, even as we hear of the embalming, abuse, disfiguring and deterioration of the corpse in its travels (It helps theatrically that she stands in a cabinet rather than lies in a casket) as evil swirls around her.

As popular as she was publicly, Eva Perón was hated so fiercely by enemies in the military and businesses that it’s shocking to hear them sing as she lies dying in the opening scene cheering on her demise with phrases like “Long live cancer!”

Martin Ruiz, who appeared in the original cast of “Mummy in the Closet,” returns as a stately Perón, who disappoints in his cluelessness by returning to power by working with people with whom his wife never would have. 

Other standouts include Camila Taleisnik as the hapless third wife trying to fill the heels of her predecessor;  and Luis Obed Velazquez, Rodrigo Pereira and Diego Mariani as various generals and doctors. 

They are surrounded by an ensemble of more than a dozen, who move elegantly, with ensemble choreography by Valeria Cossu, on a clever two-story set by Grisele Gonzales, with lighting and projections by Haley Laroe. 

The songs from Mariano Vales are simple and effective, with lyrics from both Ott and Vales that seem almost like free verse (in the translations by Heather McKay at least). But it works well, thanks to a sprightly and never overbearing six-piece orchestra under the direction of Walter “Bobby” McCoy at piano.

The tragedy of the piece and the international travel of the corpse (who goes to more places than many living people do) make for a strong and serious dramatic basis for a musical that nonetheless feels light and  deft due to its music and choreography. 

With the intimacy of GALA and the dedication of all involved — it’s like a family, with the starring Tapia taking a curtain call on opening night in a Hugo Medrano T-shirt. For that and all that it portends to the present day, I think I prefer this “Mummy in the Closet” to, say, “Evita” that spawned Perón’s entry to musical theatre.

Running time: Two hours, with a 15 minute intermission.

Photo credit: Fran Tapia as Evita Perón in “Mummy in the Closet.” Photo by Stan Weinstein. 

“Mummy in the Closet: Evita’s Return” plays through June 9 at the GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St NW. All performances in Spanish with English subtitles. Tickets available online


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