Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Ken Urmston
Reagle Players, Robinson Theatre
Waltham, MA July 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Reagle Players "Evita" doesn't look or feel like a Reagle show. This should be taken as praise, I believe. It is proof that Bob Eagle's theatre is now large enough and skillful enough to produce something at odds with the humane and neighborly sensibility that makes going to see a Reagle show such a cozy pleasure. Usually when I praise a Reagle musical it is because its staging has equaled the polish of the top professional stagings I've seen, in NYC or London, or a national tour, and has added charm in that the Reagle Players cast includes local amateurs whose delight in displaying their professional level skill is equaled only by the delight a Waltham audience that includes family and friends takes in seeing the Players strut their stuff. "Evita" isn't like that. There are still plenty of Reagle regulars -- nineteen of the cast members, including one who is the 3rd generation of her family to appear in Reagle shows -- but although they have plenty to do in the ensemble, where they change costumes and characters nonstop and sketch in relationships that bring a bygone era and a distant nation to life, they have been subsumed into a seamless whole. Evita may soar in her anthem of aspiring national identification, and decrescendo to indicate inclusion, singing to the little people "Don't keep your distance," but here the Waltham little people do keep their distance, as do the visiting professionals. The staging is all distanced, but the distancing is precisely graduated to point up the manipulations of the emotions the Lloyd-Webber music evokes. "Evita" is one of the best examples of Brechtian Epic Theatre's alienation effects that I have ever experienced.

I must admit that I have no experience of a top professional staging of "Evita", or even of a church basement one. For comparison I have only the CD, which seemed to me repetitious and meandering, and the movie, which seemed such a hodgepodge I could barely sit through it. Colleagues who saw "Evita" on Broadway tell me that the force of Reagle's version equals what they felt in 1979, and that no subsequent production they've seen has been marked by the attention to detail that distinguishes this one. I can only say that I thought the Reagle staging excellent: sharp and brisk and assertive, and that it also gave me a strong sense of the teeming world out of which these surface effects emerged. As story telling, it combined brilliantly with the music. What on the recording had seemed boring repetition became intensifying variation, while the meandering opened up space for the intellect to collect and reflect on the layers of irony in the events and attitudes recounted by the Tim Rice lyrics. Ken Urmston, who is responsible for both staging and choreography, says in the program that he has been "staging companies of Evita since 1979" -- which is the year the Hal Prince production opened on Broadway, to be rewarded with a run of 1,567 performances, 7 Tony awards, and stagings around the world. Urmston is credited with those in Canada, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Singapore.

The "Evita" set design is metal scaffolding with exposed light fixtures and an overhead movie screen which is used for black and white "news" sequences throughout the production. The set was adapted and shipped in from the Fullerton Light Opera. The projected photographs circa 1940-50 fill in some sociology and grit that the abstract physicality of the staging omits. Urmston will refer to those images, set a scene with the ensemble's bodies used as scenery, and alternate between fluid "backstory" motion and freeze-frame pauses while the principals act out stylized encounters in the foreground.

The production is framed, beginning and end, by a formal scene of Evita's coffin: the Argentine President's wife and co-ruler dead of cancer at 33 and revered as a saint by the Argentine masses. After the "Requiem for Evita" the camouflage clad figure of a guerilla, Che (Vincente D'Elia), will guide us through the parts of the story the principals would not tell us. The principals seem to be carried along on emotional vectors they share with the people. Bobby Matteau as the singer Magaldi embodies macho romance for the love starved provincial women -- but when Eva "succumbs" to Magaldi's public love-making he is trapped in his own myth, doomed to repeat his musical seductions provincially until he is old and unattractive, his only claim to fame the fact that he was Evita's first step up. Eva's upwardly-mobile career of prostitution is a deftly individualized version of the brothel scene in the Brecht-Weill "Mahagonny", "Good Night And Thank You", and may represent the only career ladder for a girl born out of wedlock in the slums. Peron's cursus honorum through the ranks of the Argentine military is staged as a political elimination game of musical chairs, "The Art of the Possible", ending with Peron's sigh of satisfaction exhaled in cigar smoke. Eva has accrued some media fame when she propositions Peron at a Charity Concert with "I'd be Surprisingly Good for You". Eva has a vision of them together, male and female, discipline and compassion, becoming a political embodiment of the dreams of the Argentine people. They will empower the little people to identify with their rulers for once, rendering mass poverty endurable because they will be as one family, proud of the attainment of their patriarch, not an underclass battened on by masters who despise them. There is a phalanx of First Family aristocrats, veddy English, who move as a unit in a fashionable pose as they sing their disapproval of a base born whore who thinks she can rule as First Lady-- she'll never be a lady of any kind, let alone a First.. When stripped of their jewelry and fancy clothes they disappear into the crowd. All of this is narrated, framed, and commented upon by Che, who represents the other emotional vector bubbling up from the oppressed masses-- Marxist revolution.

Vincente D'Elia is a charismatic Che, his critique keeping us alert to the economic realities and summing up with "And the Money Kept Rolling In" (And Out)". Kerri Jill Garbis is a veteran Evita, having performed the role "in every state but Hawaii", but she is as convincing as the brash untutored teen as she is as the burnt out invalid running on nerves alone. Garbis' Eva is yearning and tentative, then brassy and brave, intelligent and elegant at her plateau, and bravely vulnerable once she begins her cancerous downward slide. Ronald L. Brown seems to me to be too nice a guy to play Peron, too much the supportive leading man even when he is fondling a lapful of nymphets or dispatching his thugs to take care of threats like Che. Bonnie Fraser provides as Peron's child/mistress in "Another Suitcase" a delicately sympathetic sketch of what Eva's career might have been if she had had less intelligence and determination.

Altogether the production is -- well, all together. It is a solid as monument, glittering but dark, layered with wit and irony but joyless. I am glad to have seen it, and I regret that I didn't take the opportunity to see "Evita" years ago. I expect that I will want to see it again, in a different production, to put this one in perspective. "Evita" certainly absorbed me, and I can't help admiring the skill with which it was executed. But it is a cold and detached admiration. The emotions evoked by the Lloyd Webber music are under constant re-examination and deconstruction, their manipulations and indulgences revealed. They are visualized as powerful, with images ripped from newspapers and portentous fingers of light reaching out through darkness, with cheering and parades and weeping and rosaries and coffins -- but they are powerful for Others, people of a distant land, another era, prisoners of a different System. The distancing that forces me as audience to see through the story rather than be swept up by it and prevents me from putting myself in the shoes of the Peronista little people and identifying with Evita, may extend to the point where there is no bridge connecting her story to my here and now life. What use is a rigorous analysis of dreams unless the dreams are my dreams, too?

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