The Art Of the Possible

Playhouse's Evita cloaks shallowness with style.

| May 10, 2002

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and his constant writing companion Sir Tim Rice are collectively responsible for some of the greatest theatrical atrocities the stage has ever known. Their insipid pop constructions have appropriated all the gaudy excesses of grand opera (minus the musical intricacies) and inflated them beyond reason. To witness the spectacle that is Phantom of the Opera is to endure a latter-day equivalent of the mock naval battles that entertained the teeming masses of ancient Rome.

While my personal loathing of this pair knows no bounds, a few concessions must be made. Whatever your creed may be, there is something truly electric about Webber's score for Jesus Christ Superstar, even if his partner's lyrics alternate between the silly and the supremely self-important. Rice's solo outing Chess, a vague commentary on Cold War politics, yielded the wonderfully bombastic declaration of independence "Nobody's Side" as well as the quirky "One Night in Bangkok," proving once and for all that he could drop the sap and be genuinely clever when he put his mind to it. Webber and Rice's most effective collaboration comes in the form of Evita, a light, vaguely tragic operetta recounting the life story of Señora María Eva Duarte de Perón, Argentina's most famous, and, in some circles, infamous, first lady. Playhouse on the Square, hoping to capitalize on the public interest created by Memphis In May's salute to Argentina, has undertaken this musical epic, and the clarity of their production shows off the theater's greatest strengths while revealing the show's intrinsic weaknesses.

When it comes to the subject of biography, "History be damned, gimme some pizzazz" has long been the credo of Hollywood, and Evita was the product of the Hollywood ethos long before Madonna ever warbled "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." Rather than focusing intensely on one aspect of the actress turned politica turned saint, Evita follows its subject from death to birth to death again in just a little over two hours. Needless to say, details are sacrificed and we are presented with the mythical Evita rather than the historical one. We are shown a woman who carries a deep resentment of the middle class because, being poor, she and her sisters were considered too disgusting to attend her middle-class father's funeral. So what if Evita's sisters swear that's all a load of hooey? It makes for a good story, right? We are presented with an Evita who sleeps her way to the top then uses her newfound power for the good of all Argentineans, a progressive suffragette who only occasionally uses her position to line her own pockets. It's the old hooker with a heart of gold redux. To top things off, the show is narrated by Che Guevara, the well-heeled physician turned Socialist über-rebel whose political history is more closely linked with Cuba and Bolivia than with his native Argentina.

To be fair, the script does balance the leftist excesses of Peronism with its fascist tendencies, but the latter seem mild in light of Evita's big-hearted efforts to ease the pain of her people. Che's contrary political beliefs, which were considered radical even by known radicals, are never clearly stated. When boiled down to its core, what results is good old-fashioned diva worship.

Director Scott Ferguson has teamed with Project:Motion's Jay Rapp to create simple but extremely effective choreography. Rapp's inherently theatrical style has been the saving grace of many an otherwise doomed show and the delicious icing on an even greater number of hits. Together, Rapp and Ferguson have filled in, by way of movement, much that is lacking in the script. For example, the goose-stepping game of musical chairs created for "The Art of the Possible," the segment which loosely maps Juan Peron's rise to power, makes it perfectly clear that not only is Argentina a volatile place, it is a place where even the best intentions are coupled with unsavory influences.

Webber's Evita has three distinct modes of operation: the innocent, the bitch, and the goddess. There is very little room for anything in between. Carla McDonald nails each personality, and her extraordinary voice and gift for phrasing more than make up for the missing nuance. Jonathon Lamer's Peron is a benevolent dictator who is only doing what he must, and Lamer manages to coax and cajole a real character out of the thumbnail sketch he is given to work with. Jason Watson is somewhat less successful with Che. Though his voice is strong and clear and his physical presence commanding, he lacks the spark that elevated Che from asthmatic guerrilla warrior to iconic revolutionary. Che himself once noted that the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love, exactly the sentiment that seems to be missing here. At best, Watson comes off as a charming malcontent, but given the material, it's hard to lay too much blame at the actor's feet.

Playhouse currently has a number of ambitious performers in its stable, and they regularly rise, or stoop, to fit the level of the material they are performing. Thanks to their efforts, this Evita is even palatable to diehard ALW detractors like myself. When the chorus contains such gifted performers as Michael Duggan, David Foster, Renee Davis, Courtney Oliver, and Kyle Barnette, it's hard to go too wrong.

Through June 9th.

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