Asolo Repertory Theatre has demonstrated another masterstroke with “Evita,” which opened last week. The casting, costumes, staging, and choreography all smashed through the barriers of the more traditional Broadway staging of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. The action begins with Evita lowered from the ceiling on an aerial silk during a screening of a film. You know you want to get to know someone lionized as Evita was in Argentina.
Twenty-five years ago, I reviewed the traveling Broadway production of “Evita,” which at the time I felt paid short shrift to Eva Peron. Peron is an enigmatic and intriguing figure possessing tremendous leadership skills, ambition, and a talent for bringing showmanship and style to politics. Yet, the show felt hollow at its core, because the Webber production with lyrics by Tim Rice never let you empathize with someone so notably gifted at making people love her.
I was eager to give the classic, with some of the most memorable songs in the Broadway canon, principally “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” another try when the Asolo announced that “Evita” was the musical opening the 2017-2018 season.
Casting Latin pop star Ana Isabelle was the most ingenuous step of the production. Isabelle so fully embraced the role of Evita that she was able to bring us on the emotional journey of Peron’s rise from a fifteen-year-old small-town girl with dreams of stardom to the darling of Argentina with potentially despotic ambitions.
Using dance to convey courtship, war, and romance, director/choreographer Josh Rhodes is inventive, playful, and creative in using the small Mertz stage to transport us to Argentina and even on a world “rainbow tour” with quick costume changes where each dance number outdoes the one before it.
Che (Justin Gregory Lopez) has a lovely voice and serves as a stalwart narrator; but his incessant critique of Evita grows tiresome. His issues with the endlessly compelling Evita only serve to make you love her more, and I found myself wondering if some of his problems with her were “fake news.”
Isabelle owned the stage in every scene and brought the house down as no other star has in all my years attending shows at the Asolo Repertory. Also notable were Nick Duckart as Juan Peron, who was a worthy partner to Evita and Gizel Jiminez as Peron’s mistress who momentarily stole the show with her knockout rendition of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
If you are a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, this dance-centric and thoroughly modern production at Asolo Repertory is not to be missed. This is not your mother’s “Evita,” and it behooves you to check out a Rhodes’s take on this work of Broadway legend.