Tulsans may not be crying for Eva Peron, but they are -- or should be -- crying out for more of LOOK Musical Theatre's Evita, which ran last weekend at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's John H. Williams Theatre.
With a new name -- LOOK was formally known as Light Opera Oklahoma until this year -- and a new mission, which is to produce modern (read: post-1950) musicals, LOOK Musical Theatre produces the same high-caliber shows it always has, as it proved with Evita and Trouble in Tahiti last weekend.
Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1976, Evita chronicles the life of Ava Duarte Peron, Argentinean model and actress who, at 26, married Juan Peron and became the first lady of Argentina and a political leader in her own right.
Christina Hager is Evita, while Joshua Powell plays her husband and Neil Darling (coincidentally, Hager's fiance) is Che, the story's narrator. A chorus fills in the blanks, portraying family, military, aristocrats and lower-class citizens.
The show opens in a movie theater in 1952, where a Spanish melodrama is interrupted by the sad news that Eva Peron has died. The mourning Argentine public is interrupted by Che, who asserts that Eva did nothing for them, falling short of all the promises she made to her working-class followers.
The story flashes back to 1934, when a 15-year-old Eva hooks up with tango singer Agustin Magaldi (Pedro Willis-Barbosa), hitching a ride to Buenos Aires but ditching him upon arrival.
She earns some success as a model, radio host and actress, and meets Juan Peron at a charity event benefiting victims of a devastating San Juan earthquake. They begin an affair that ends in marriage, much to the chagrin of Argentina's military and elite.
Their political career is fraught with hostility, but Eva does manage to earn the trust and respect of the country's lower classes. Arguably, it's her work and her support of her husband that keeps him in office.
Eva is offered a nomination for the vice presidency and seems determined to accept it, but her health is deteriorating. She dies from cancer in 1952, and, at the play's end, Che reveals that, though a monument was supposed to be constructed over her tomb, only the pedestal is completed, and her body is stolen, missing for 17 years.
It's a somewhat abrupt ending to a big musical about a short life. Though the tale was made popular in America by the 1996 film that featured Madonna and Antonio Banderas in the roles of Evita and Che, respectively, you shouldn't take your memory of the movie with you to the PAC to see LOOK's rendition. Or maybe you should. Either way, you'll be pleasantly surprised with the differences between the film and the stage version.
The movie relies heavily on special effects, while LOOK's production of Evita is simple and lovely -- and, because of this, much more captivating than the film. There's very little set -- a square platform on wheels and a few props -- with some flags, banners and streamers serving as a backdrop at various points in the play.
LOOK's focus is definitely on the music, telling Evita's story without trying to distract the audience with a fancy set and costume. It's very pure and showcases the talents of the singers and the beauty of the music.
Hager is quite lovely as Evita, and she's even better when Darling joins her on stage. The two share a chemistry that could possibly be explained by their personal relationship -- or by the fact that they're both big singers and brilliant actors who care deeply about their characters and are committed to bringing them to life on stage.
Hager's rendition of the musical's anthem, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," in the second act is perfect.
It's chilling, full of emotion, and easily the best thing she sings all night -- maybe even the best thing anyone sings all night.
Darling is probably responsible for much of the play's energy. He brings it onto stage with him every time he enters and disperses it among members of the chorus. He invigorates the musical, and its audiences, and we all gobble up everything the dissenter tells us.
Powell gives a solid performance as Juan Peron, deftly leading a chorus of men in one of the show's best numbers: "The Art of the Possible."
Evita continues July 1, 6, 7 and 9 (all shows begin at 8pm, with a 2pm matinee on July 9 as well) at the PAC and then goes on the road the following week to Pryor, Miami and Okmulgee. Tickets are $29-$32 and available at tulsapac.com
No Trouble At All
LOOK Musical Theatre took an interesting approach to staging Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, a short, one-act opera set in the 1950s and assumably based on the writer's parents' tensional relationship.
The story goes: Sam and Dinah are a "typical" middle class married couple living in midwestern suburbia. On the outside, everything seems idyllic, but the pair are miserable. Sam is preoccupied with work and hobbies, and Dinah is sure he's having an affair with his secretary. She wants him to spend more time with his family, and he wants her to spend less time nagging him.
They each remember a time when they were happy together, and they'd like to get back to that place, but they're not sure how. They feel hopeless. In the end, after another argument, the agree to see a movie together -- Trouble in Tahiti, which Dinah saw earlier in the day and scoffed at, though she let herself get caught up in its romantically unbelievable tale -- and, perhaps, reconcile their marriage.
The 1953 version of the opera features Joshua Powell and Shannon Unger in the lead roles, and the production is nearly perfect. The 2011 couple is played by Stephen Dagrosa and Dixie Roberts, whose characters blur the line Bernstein drew between his character's genders.
While 1950s Dinah is a traditional homemaker, 2011 Dinah works. In the 1950s version of the opera, most of the blame for the relationship's lies on Sam, while both parties seem equally responsible in the 2011 telling.
It's easier to laugh at the 1950s version of the tale, because it seems so ridiculously antiquated, while the 2011 version tugs on the heartstrings a little more. You hope 1950s Dinah will get on the women's lib band wagon when it rolls into town in a couple of years, but you recognize that the 2011 couple has some issues they need to work out -- and you hope they do. You see the merit in their marriage, and you want the best for them.
And, luckily, there's hope at the end of their story, as they settle down in each other's arms to watch a movie that has arrived in the mail via Netflix. There's less hope in 1953, when the couple agrees to go out, and might even agree to stay married, but don't leave audiences with the impression that they'll find happiness again.
While I preferred the production of the 1953 version of the opera, I liked the 2011 interpretation better, and I applaud Gibson for having the gall to go after it. The choices he made -- even the smallest ones -- made a big difference on stage.
Both versions of the show will be staged back-to back on Sunday, July 3 at 8pm. Tuesday, July 5, will feature an 8pm performance paired with a cabaret. Tickets are $29-$32 at the PAC's website.
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