A mysterious 40-foot shaft of light pierces the darkness to glow on a coffin. It is the first of many daring effects in Evita, now running at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. In the modern world of celebrity politics, no one matches Eva Perón. In this dazzling production, director Dennis Razze captures the strange charisma of the woman Argentina came to adore as “Evita.”
Refrains of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” dominate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody-poor score, but the lyrics of Tim Rice save the tunes. Dee Roscioli, who starred on Broadway as Wicked’s Elphaba, shines as Eva with a strong stage presence and mezzo-soprano. As her husband, Argentine president Juan Perón, Paulo Szot is a baritone with true operatic power.
But music plays counterpoint to Razze’s lavish staging. The stage throbs all night with Lisa Zinni’s eye-catching costumes and Stephen Casey’s choreography. Nathan Diehl’s orchestration mixes rock, classical, and tango.
I Am Argentina
Evita progresses chronologically. We follow her from childhood poverty to stardom as an actress in Buenos Aires. As Rice tells the tale — the accuracy of his book is disputed — Eva ditched her lover, Magali (Jason Forbach), after meeting Juan. Likewise, Juan dumped his mistress (Jerusha Cavazos), who sadly sings “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
But Argentina was Eva’s true love. Razze uses newsreel footage to show Eva on her 1947 “Rainbow Tour.” Though she championed los descamisados — the "shirtless ones" — she wore notoriously sumptuous clothes, because the people, as Rice writes, “want to adore me / to Christian Dior me.”
Eva charms the Spanish, meets with the Pope, amuses the French, and trades insults with the King of England. Evita, the one with the signature blond chignon who liked to spread her arms wide saying, “I am Argentina,” is born.
Many in this 40-member cast play overjoyed homecoming crowds. But, thanks to Zinni and Casey, it’s evident that other Argentines are less enthralled. A military unit marches with a comical mix of goosesteps and jigs; a group of upper-class Argentines watch while holding their English polo sticks.
Death, where is thy victory?
How to handle Che? Some productions play him in those iconic fatigues and beret, suggesting that Evita is an inauthentic revolutionary, more interested in lining her pockets than helping the poor, as expressed in “And the Money Kept Rolling In” (Che and Company). Others, like Razze, present Che more as a roguish Everyman. Dan Domenech’s Che is nicely dressed in brown clothing of no identifiable class or station. Nor is his attitude toward Evita perfectly one-sided.
Domenech is a fine lyrical tenor who captures the audience with his comic timing. Che becomes something like Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as he weaves through the throng, amused yet weary of fools. After cynically introducing Evita at a Perón rally, Che hides in the adoring crowd, waves his little flag, and dodges Perón’s grey-suited blackjack thugs, who rightly suspect he lacks enthusiasm.
When Evita was dying of cancer at age 32, newsreels show her as too weak to stand. Juan Perón, reduced to prince consort in macho Argentina, had to hold her up as she addressed the crowds. We see her embalmed remains and her massive funeral. And then the final words: Evita’s body disappeared for 16 years.
The Peróns’ history is stranger than fiction. Evita’s remains were eventually recovered from Perón’s political rivals. Still embalmed well enough to be restored, she now rests in a bomb-proof vault outside Buenos Aires. Even today, in Latin America, only the Virgin of Guadalupe is more deeply revered.