By Barry Reszel
You always remember your first.
Mine was senior year of high school, 1981, in the balcony of Chicago’s old Schubert (now The PrivateBank) Theatre on Monroe, just a half block off State Street. It was a school field trip with a really cool elective class and teacher, Mass Media in Society with Dr. Jim Zalewski, at Lyons Township High School.
We had lousy seats. Way up in the nosebleeds. But looking back, perhaps that makes the memory even stronger, the story even better. Either way, it all happened much too quickly, seemingly over just seconds after it began. And yet it never really ended.
Her name was Evita.
I fell in love with her that day, taking in her every movement in the first national tour following a Tony sweep (including Best Musical) the year before. And I love her still.
We had a reunion in Lincolnshire this week as the venerable Marriott Theatre unleashed its powerhouse production onto the Chicagoland musical theatre scene, and I’m glad to have this space to share my thoughts about it.
Please stay with me, here. I disdain reviews comparing a work’s different versions seen by the same guy in (probably) the same suit. Most folks really don’t know or care care if Drury Lane’s 1995 offering upheld the delicate nuances introduced in the ’94 national tour mounted in anticipation of the film version starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. The exceptions, of course, may be the 12 Chicagoans who remember seeing both; I think they can do the comparison on their own.
I promise not to do that with my beloved Evita. I simply think it only fair to disclose my bias at the onset.
Indeed, one might argue my predilection forged in memories and hormones and such might manifest a predisposition against any present-day re-imagination of the show. To that I say, “Al contrario, mi amigo,” which is Argentinian for au contraire.
Instead I am thrilled to report Director and Choreographer Alex Sanchez‘s staging is a brilliant operatic retelling of Argentine First Lady Eva Peron‘s most interesting life (let’s leave the historical accuracy argument to the historians). His treatment of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice masterpiece is simultaneously haunting, jubilant, reflective and inspiring.
And whether patrons considering opening their hearts to this Evita are doing so for the first time, are card-carrying Evitaites or fall somewhere in between, consider these 10 contemplations from one whose heart will forever hold her dear:
#1. There may not ever be a better portrayal of Juan Peron than the one Larry Adams gives in this production. His booming voice and fabulous stage presence sell every emotion of the Argentine lieutenant general, reluctant president, smitten lover and grieving husband. Adams’ reprise of one of Webber/Rice’s finest contributions to this strong songbook, “High Flying, Adored,” is cabaret-worthy, and his standout performance deserves Jeff Award consideration.
#2. Director Sanchez’s many clever touches serve Marriott’s in-the-round seating particularly well. It may take two to tango, but when 10 members of a talented cast can pull it off, it adds terrific visual panache. Similarly, the literal undressing of Argentina’s aristocracy will have even the staunchest conservatives feeling the Bern. These are but two examples in a show packed with them.
#3. Eliza Palasz‘s blue eyes, and of course her innocent rendition of a top five song in the musical theatre canon, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” are simply breathtaking.
#4. Despite this piece being dominated by strong lead characters, its success depends on a stellar ensemble. It would be difficult to find a better all-around vocal cast than the one singing nightly in Lincolnshire. So too, strong ensemble members often put their own marks onto great productions. In the two shows I attended, George Keating, Christine Mild, Sayiga Eugene Peabody and Brian Bohr did just that.
#5. Two shows? Because there are two Evas, necessary because of the ungodly vocal range required of the role. “I was screaming my way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women,” said original Broadway Evita, Patti LuPone, in an interview. “This score is so difficult to sing. There’s a couple of notes that aren’t as strong as your top notes or your bottom notes and that’s exactly where the score sits.” The good news for local patrons is that both Hannah Corneau and Samantha Pauly, who share the role, are equally excellent. In both cases, the tender “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” is performed to perfection…
#6… except for the cell phones. At one performance, there were approximately 10 cell phone rings, two from a single person’s phone during the most tender moments of the production’s most iconic song. I’m not certain exactly what house managers can do, but adding another “turn it off” reminder before beginning the second act would be a start.
#7. An advantage to watching this production (and its two stars) twice, back-to-back, is that it provides even greater appreciation than usual for Marriott’s fabulous Costume Designer Nancy Missimi. In particular, Eva’s gowns, different for each of the two actresses, are spectacular.
#8. Broadway veteran Austin Lesch effectively puts his own almost tender touch on narrator Che, the revolutionary based on real-life Che Guevara. His lovely voice and the terrific staging of “Waltz for Eva and Che” will be highlights for most patrons.
#9. The Constantin Stanislavski “no small parts” Award in this production belongs to David Schlumpf as Agustín Magaldi, the character set up as the first of Eva’s throw-away lovers as she sleeps her way to power. Magaldi has one song, and Schlumpf sings the heck out of it. As he is also the understudy for Che, it would be interesting to see what this fine performer would bring to that role.
#10. The central question of Evita is always, “What’s next?” Several times it’s expressed as, “Where am I going to?” It’s a question Marriott, indeed all Chicagoland professional theatres, had dropped on them when actor Bear Bellinger openly questioned the lack of diversity among this production’s cast. Marriott’s creative team defended their reputation, saying they want more actors of color to attend their open auditions, which are all publicized. Bellinger’s own “what’s next for this issue” is starting a self-identification database to help minority actors connect with Chicagoland theatres. Information about that database may be found here. While this Evita is certainly a star-quality, high flying, adored production, it will be remembered, fairly or not, as the show that gave rise to this important conversation. It’s a conversation that must continue until its “Where am I going to?” has a rightful answer.
“Evita” is presented at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through June 5. Tickets ($50 – $55) are available here or by phone at 847-634-0200. Parking is free.