A refreshing `Evita' revival

Theater review


Now that even Madonna has played the part, former Argentine first lady Eva Peron no longer seems as unlikely a subject for a musical as she once did.

In an important sense, however, Peron was always ideally suited to the stage. After all, she began her career as an actress.

For their 1978 musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice chose to emphasize the actress' political performance -- Evita's rise, reign, near deification and fall. And they chose the ideal politically savvy director, Harold Prince. His staging is reproduced by the show's original choreographer, Larry Fuller, and supervised by Prince himself, in the revival at the Hippodrome Theatre.

But brilliant as Prince's work continues to be, it cannot possibly seem fresh after more than a quarter-century. Instead, it is the performances of, and interaction among, the three leads that invigorates this revival.

No matter how Tim O'Brien's costumes dress her up, Kathy Voytko's Evita remains a portrait of pure, naked ambition. Voytko plays her as a woman with fire in her soul and ice in her eyes. She doesn't sing the first two words in the lyric, "Stand back, Buenos Aires," she declares them. And if Voytko's singing sometimes sounds shrill as well as strident, well, so is her character. This is a boldly assertive portrayal by a performer who, in a few years, could step into the shoes of another Lloyd Webber monster heroine, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

When Voytko's Evita meets her future husband, Philip Hernandez's Juan Peron, in the mellifluously ingratiating duet, "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," it's not love at first sight, it's the meeting of two shrewd, selfish opportunists. Voytko (whose contract with the show is ending; the new Evita, Sarah Litzsinger, begins performances tonight) is well-matched with Hernandez, who brings several dimensions to the president-turned-dictator.

Before he hooks up with Evita, Hernandez's Peron is ambitious but only to a point. This malleable man appears to find the notions of becoming president wearying. In Lloyd Webber and Rice's vision, however, Evita not only makes him president, she makes him over in her own hard, cynical image. It's a makeover that works all too well, as is evident later when Peron coolly shunts aside his ailing wife's desire to be vice president.

To narrate and comment on Evita's story, Lloyd Webber and Rice interpolated a character named Che (loosely modeled after the revolutionary Che Guevara, although he and Eva Peron never met). This character is often portrayed as the stereotypical angry rebel, but Keith Byron Kirk takes a more varied approach.

The action is related in flashback, starting with Evita's funeral, and Che begins his first number, "Oh What a Circus," leaning toward us, hunched over, as if he's letting the audience in on something -- the truth about power-grasping Evita. Kirk's Che is part imp, part thorn in the side of authority, and part the conscience of the piece. When Che worms his way into scenes in the guise of a waiter or a reporter, it's almost with a wink to the audience.

However, with the exception of theatergoers unfamiliar with the musical, Che isn't showing us anything we haven't seen before, no matter how ingeniously staged.

And, much of Prince's direction remains ingenious, especially his handling of two back-to-back scenes in the first act -- "Goodnight and Thank You," in which a revolving door, spewing out discarded lovers, depicts Evita sleeping her way to the top, and "The Art of the Possible," in which a game of musical chairs depicts Peron's ascent in the military.

Eva Peron may have seduced a nation (or at least its working class), but the protagonist created by Lloyd Webber and Rice casts a spell that is far more chilling than warm.

And, though the shock of the new is long gone from this production, the proficient performances offer a frighteningly timely reminder of the ways in which crafty politicians can manipulate the masses.

IF YOU GO Evita continues through Nov. 6 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $26-$71. Call 410-547-SEAT.


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