Rise and Fall 

The Rep’s Evita entertains, even if the script and the songs don’t always deliver

The Rep’s Evita entertains, even if the script and the songs don’t always deliver

Evita

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Through May 25 at TPAC’s Polk Theater

Tennessee Repertory Theatre closes out its 2002-2003 season this weekend with final performances of Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s well-known musical treatment of the life of Eva Peron, the controversial and star-crossed first lady of Argentina, whose unlikely yet dramatic rise to power and fame was cut short prematurely when she succumbed to uterine cancer in 1952 at the age of 33.

The depiction of real-life events here does make for interesting viewing. Born into poverty in a small village in 1919, Maria Eva Duarte entered show business and then, as the story goes, basically slept her way to the top, eventually corralling in military man Juan Peron, whom she persuaded to seek the presidency of a country wracked by labor and class struggles. Once in power, Evita (as a devoted Argentine public affectionately called her) embarked on a carefully orchestrated plan to endear herself to laborers and peasants, egomaniacally attempting to mount the world stage as an elegant figurehead and beloved savior of her people. In this telling, she comes off as corrupt as she was saintly, and so makes for a fatally flawed heroine. Hence, we are less moved by Evita’s demise than we are fascinated by her despotic rule and her self-centeredness to the bitter end.

The Rep production matches the scope of its subject’s life. It’s got a big, stylish movable set by Gary C. Hoff, and Lane Fragomeli’s costumes are sumptuous, especially the wardrobe designed for the leading lady, with rich colors and sequins that sparkle. If you throw in the Nashville Children’s Choir, the cast numbers 50, so this is a major undertaking. It’s largely successful, though the music—despite the presence of a few catchy numbers—seems rather workmanlike and driven too much by Rice’s lyrics, which feel forced and clunky at times. Tangos and such lend the show an authentic South American feel, but Webber’s faux operatic passages are not memorable. The Act 1 closer, “A New Argentina,” and the Act 2 opener, “Casa Rosada (Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina),” are standout pieces.

Charged with making this pseudo-spectacle work to maximum effect is Kerri Jill Garbis, who has played Evita many times and in many other places before. She can sing the part all right, and what she lacks in fire and sex appeal she makes up for with assuredness and professionalism. Her main foil is Robert Bartley, who narrates the play embodying Che Guevara, the infamous Argentine-born Marxist rebel. As the voice of protest, he stomps about and sneers his disapproval and sings loudly—to him, Evita is a fraud and cares little for the common man. It’s a strange and mostly thankless role—never mind that it has absolutely nothing to do with historical fact—and despite his sincere efforts, Bartley comes off rather overwrought.

Faring better is Johnny Fredo, who offers a more understated performance as Col. Peron. As his mistress, Nicole Marrale has a solo number, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” which she handles well when she stays away from the highest notes. (The song, though, appears to be strictly filler material; it advances nothing in the story.) Probably the strongest supporting player is Gerard Lebeda as Magaldi, the nightclub performer who gives Evita her first break and the chance to experience big-city life. His rendition of “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” elevates cheesy Argentine lounge-lizardry to an art form.

Lynne Kurdziel-Formato choreographs the show, and while nothing really knocks your socks off, there is a lot of solid professional dancing on the Polk Theater stage: romantic duets, precision military turns by soldiers, large scenes with the various elements of the Argentine populace. Musical director Vince di Mura leads the very good 10-piece band in the orchestra pit.

This Evita is, generally speaking, an entertaining capper for what has been a good season of theater for the Rep. If the show seems a tad antiseptic—when it’s not a little bitchy, that is—then perhaps Webber and Rice are to blame. Their script is long on artifice and comes off as lacking in character. On the other hand, that describes Mrs. Peron to a contentiously tacky tee.

The Rep recently announced its 2003-2004 Mainstage season, which kicks off Sept. 17 with Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. A film noir-accented version of Dracula then opens on Oct. 29, followed by a reprise of the 2002 Off-Broadway Series hit God’s Man in Texas (Dec. 3), The Diary of Anne Frank (March 10) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (May 5).

A clarification on Chicago

In last week’s review of Chicago, I took the Boiler Room Theatre to task for a piece of stage business deemed to be “amateurish” and not a part of the Bob Fosse-Fred Ebb script. In fact, the scene in question, involving a male actor playing a female character, is spelled out just so in the original version, as first performed on Broadway. The recent Academy Award-winning film of Chicago eschews this comic bit, and some other stage productions have done likewise. BRT stayed true to the source material. I apologize for the false assumption.

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