Monday, March 7, 2011

Theatre review: "Evita" from Point Park Conservatory Theatre

Once again students of Point Park U’s Conservatory Theatre Company prove their impressive singing and dancing talents. This time they enrich the sound and the look of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1979 multi-Tony Award winning hit Evita. Credit too the imagination of director John Shepard, the skill of choreographer Keisha Lalama-White and the melodies evoked by music director Camille Rolla.

As for the material which they interpret, I’d never seen this before and was never impressed by Rice and Webber’s songs and have found, underneath the shiny, vividly decorated shells of their shows, hollow interiors of inferior milk chocolate. And, having now witnessed Evita, I come away with an unaltered opinion of their work. I should point out, incidentally, that, when it opened on Broadway, the reaction to the book and the score by many New York critics was similar to my own.

Some basic information, in case you need it: the show shadows actress Evita Duarte Peron’s real-life 8 year rise to national and international fame as the activist wife of 1940s Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Mostly it follows a natural time progression with virtually every word, every fact, every revelation sung-through, conveyed by Rice’s lyrics set to Lloyd Webber’s music. Throughout, too, a character suggesting Che Guevara, a sort of counter-culture reverse mirror image of Evita, serves as narrator and critical social commentator, seeking to expose the questionable side of the woman eventually revered by her people as some kind of saint. That point of view represents one of several different historical perspectives about Evita’s real life. Meanwhile director Shepard adds his own interpretive take by having two versions of Evita…Eva and Evita…throughout the story, representing her pre and post Peron phase. Plus he has four simultaneous versions of Che.

If you already know the basic facts of Evita’s history you won’t get much further information since the musical doesn’t really do much more than present those facts. Rice's book, not credited in the program, doesn’t explore the characters’ inner workings, or delve into anything of substance in this pageant. You may get some idea of unseen background developments in Rice’s utilitarian expository lyrics, provided you can understand them.

As for Lloyd Webber’s music, he often hints at Latin-American rhythms, without actually doing much, surprisingly, to imitate the tango. I heard traces of Brazilian music in there. Occasionally he also inserts a few solid suggestions of something symphonic, and sometimes his score sounds like pop music of no particular period. A few songs sound interestingly original, including, of course, the unforgettable hit “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” In this case you won’t be allowed to forget it; it’s reprised five times.

I often found the multi-voice writing appealing so director Shepard’s choice to multi-cast Evita and Che enhances many basic vocal lines, turning lines for single voices into more interesting multiple harmonies. By the way, no one is credited in the program book for these arrangements. Perhaps it is the work of music director Rolla.

As for the other aspect of the multi-casting, it makes the shallow story more colorful and Shepard explains his intentions in informative program notes.

Regarding interpreting the roles, that’s no easy task; the performers have to bring something personal and inventive to underdeveloped characters. In this case, Kevin O’Leary’s version of Juan Peron constantly makes him interesting, as if Peron is learning on the job of how to progress from a non-entity manipulated by pushy Eva/Evita to a man who becomes stronger and more self-assured. And, as Evita, Courtney Bassett has all the right aggressiveness, although if she sang more subtly at times she would have implied more depth. And playing the role of Evita’s first husband Augustin Magaldi, Janson Lee Garrett sings magnificently.

So here is a famed, much-awarded highly successful musical by writers who went on to further success, even if they’ve always had limited critical acclaim. In this case, despite the weakness of the material, everyone on and off stage does well with what they were given. Moreover, this is excellent training for performers considering professional careers because, inevitably, they will be considered for other roles in equally flawed material and have to learn how to do their best with it if they want to earn a living. And being in a Lloyd Webber or Rice show, given such continued profitability, those performers can afford to subsidize their own efforts in less well-paying better material.

Evita presented by Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre can be seen next from March 17th to 20th at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. 412-392-8000 or at

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