Theater Review: ‘Evita’ at New York City Center

By Jonathan Spira on 16 November 2019
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Very few countries find themselves so captivated and enthralled by an individual the way Argentina is to Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, a woman whose life (she was born 100 years ago) is the stuff of which legends – and musicals – are made.

As the wife of Juan Perón, the Argentine Army general who was elected president of the country three times, Eva, known by the diminutive Evita, became one of the most well known, influential, and controversial women in the world.

“Evita,” the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Weber musical which that opened at City Center on Wednesday, sets the brief and larger-than-life reign of the couple (Solea Pfeiffer and Enrique Acevedo) to song, The Peróns were popular with the working class, and Evita was viewed as a saint by many for her work in support of the poor and was the self-proclaimed champion of the “descamisados” (shirtless ones)

By the time she died at the age of 33, she had turned Buenos Aires upside down. It is here that the story begins.

But first, there’s the dress.

“She had her moments, she had some style. The best show in town was the crowd outside the Casa Rosada crying, ‘Eva Perón!’”

Eva Perón was a fashion icon with a bold and glamorous look.  Her profile with her trademark chignon is still instantly recognizable today. The garment from her Casa Rosada closet that she is most associated with, however, is the white strapless ball gown, reinterpreted for this production by Argentine designer Alejo Vietti.  It looms large over the show, floating on a hanger, over Jason Sherwood’s white carnation bier set, and soon turns into a kind of coffin to be carried away by pallbearers.

Indeed, the first words we hear in the show are from the announcement of her death.  In this production, they are first spoken in Spanish by Perón’s personal nurse and confidante, Maria Eugenia Alvarez, who is still alive at the age of 92 (she provided background to the story to director Sammi Cannold) as those were her words so many years ago.  They are then repeated in English:  “Eva Perón, spiritual leader of the nation, entered immortality at 20:25 hours today.”

“Santa Evita!” the massive crowd that assembled outside the Casa Rosada wail plaintively afterwards.

Pfeiffer sings the role of Evita impressively, as does the actress playing Young Eva, Argentine actress Maia Reffico, but only comes into her own in the second act when emotions rise after the rendering of a diagnosis of cervical cancer. Meanwhile, Acevedo does what he can with his role, which isn’t a very meaty one.

Then there’s the narrator, Che Guevara, a Greek chorus that over the passage of years since the show made its debut in London’s West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979 has become taken for granted even though Guevara wasn’t in Argentina while all this was going on and had nothing at all to do with the Peróns.  In the original production, Che (Mandy Patinkin) had a stogie and wore fatigues; here he is dressed more like a Brooklyn hipster, in various shades of black.  Che (Jason Gotay) is clearly in love with the idea of Eva Perón, but expresses his feelings with the heart of a true cynic and a slight sneer (to wit, “She’s the New World Madonna with the golden touch” and “You let down your people, Evita!”).

Overall, the premise is simple.  Evita will use Agustín Magaldi (Philip Hernandez), the tango and milonga singer who in real life was known as “the sentimental voice of Buenos Aires,” as her ticket to get to the big city. She’ll then dump him for a revolving door of more and more important lovers, and she will then set her sights on the general who is about to triumph and lead the country.  As her stature grows, she will act as a friend of the poor while amassing an impressive collection of couture and furs (“I came from the people. They need to adore me. So Christian Dior me.  From my head to my toes.”), be called a whore, and at too young an age suffer the deterioration of her own body from cancer.

As all this goes on, the City Center orchestra, conducted by Kristen Blodgette, looks down at the action on stage from its high perch, instilling the splendor that is Lloyd-Weber’s score and ode to a woman named Eva Perón.

THE DETAILS

Evita
Limited Engagement through November 24, 2019
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Running time: 2 hours

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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