So, last night, I saw the Wick Theatre’s production of Evita, knowing more or less nothing about either the show or Argentinian history. After seeing Evita, I still don’t know much about what seems to be quite a complicated era, or even about the famously divisive figure the show centers on: infamous Argentinian first lady and “spiritual leader” Eva Peron. I have gathered from a little informal research that she’s an interesting enough “character,” that, if left to my own devices, I could probably entertain myself reading about her for days.
Now may be a good time to mention that, among musical theatre fans at least, the show’s composer Andrew Lloyd Weber is a pretty divisive figure himself; while his shows have been enormously commercially successful, elitists disdain much of his work as mere spectacle. At his best, he’s capable of masterpieces like Phantom of The Opera, a genuinely moving modern classic, and at his worst, he’s, well… Cats.
Somewhere in between these two extremes lies Evita, which features a beautiful score and a plot that is at the very least existent (ok, no more Cats digs…) but puts forth a moral message that is at the very least muddled. I’m not sure how sympathetic I find Webber’s Eva, or “Evita” as she is nicknamed. More problematic from a storytelling point of view, I’m also not sure how sympathetic the audience is supposed to find her.
While history is allowed to be ambiguous, a cohesive work of art generally has to take a perspective. Is Eva Peron a hero or a tyrant? Is hers a story of a disadvantaged woman’s inspiring ascent or absolute power corrupting absolutely? Evita seems to want to have it both ways, and only undermines itself in its failure to commit.
Whatever flaws the play Evita may have, you’ll scarcely find a better rendition than the Wick’s. A talented ensemble clad in top-of-the-line costumes sing their hearts out and master complex and evocative choreography, from the elite’s smarmy ballroom dancing to the soldier’s amusingly boybandish marches.
As Eva, powerful singer Danielle Mass does a remarkable job holding her own throughout the notoriously difficult score, though her somewhat vulnerable and innocent portrayal sometimes seemed at odds with the character’s intense ambition. We first meet Eva in rural Argentina, as a poor teenager who seduces a visiting singer in order to seek fame in big city Buenos Aires.
She makes her way through a few more men in her quest to establish herself as an actress before hitching herself to the wagon of rising politician Juan Peron, played with a sleazy, Trumpish vibe by Sean McDermott.
Speaking of which, Donald Trump himself has actually claimed Evita as his favorite musical, the irony of which has not gone unremarked upon. Oh yes, a show about a manipulative and narcissistic political tyrant obsessed with their own image, I don’t see the resemblance at all!
The real-life echoes became especially apparent when Eva’s financially modest background becomes part of Peron’s political strategy of going after the vote of the “common man” by fueling fantasies with exaggerated promises of economic change. Along with goading him into running for office in the first place, Eva pipes in with emotional appeals like, “He supports you for he loves you, understands you, is one of you. If not–how could he love me?”
It’s Evita’s narrator, Michael Focas as the simmering Che Guevara, who points out the hypocrisy of these claims with continual sardonic commentary (and don’t even ask what the hell Che Guevara is doing in a story about the advent of Peronism, timeline-wise). Later, while Eva basks in the spotlight and the public’s adoration, Che points out that under her husband’s rule things in Argentina have only gotten worse.
The show, through him, often condemns Eva for her vanity, placidity, and opportunism, but it does so while constantly parading her in lavish costumes and presenting her as the apparent protagonist of her story rather than the villain. Her self-serving retorts to Che’s snipes are given as much weight as the snipes themselves — she can’t change the system, she does what she can!
Eva’s death at only 33 (this one isn’t a spoiler, as the play actually begins by announcing her demise) is also presented as a great tragedy, and songs focusing on her emotional state like High-Flying Adored and the famous Don’t Cry For Me Argentina practically invite us to identify with her.
Also, what dramatic sense does it make to have the unnamed mistress of Peron, who Eva unceremoniously usurps, sing one immensely touching song only to then disappear for the rest of the musical? A truly anti-authoritarian play might focus more on characters like her— who suffer thanks to the ruthlessness of figures like Juan and Eva — as opposed to delivering us ballad after ballad of Evita singing her heart out in expensive jewelry and shiny dress.
Well, perhaps Evita is another one of those shows better enjoyed than too deeply analyzed, and the consistently outstanding music and vocals and engaging visual flourishes make it a hard one not to enjoy. Whatever you make of Lloyd Webber and his spectacles, this production was definitely a spectacular one. You’ve got until February 23 to decide where Evita stands for yourself!