Theater Review: EVITA (Drury Lane in Chicagoland)

Post image for Theater Review: EVITA (Drury Lane in Chicagoland)

by Dan Zeff on February 5, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


Evita at the Drury Lane Theatre is a prime example of a revival that preserves the virtues of the original musical while injecting enhancements that should refresh the viewing experience of even veteran fans of the show. This is the real life story of Eva Duarte as a teenager, who rose from a backwater life in Argentina in the 1930s to become the consort of military dictator Juan Peron (later president) in the early 1940s. As Peron’s mistress and ultimately his wife, she became one the most famous and powerful women in Latin America. Eva died of cancer at the age of 33, both mourned and reviled by her subjects.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Evita had originated as a studio album in England. Then American director Harold Prince came on board and converted the music into a international stage hit, first in London (1978), then on Broadway (1979) and eventually throughout the world.

There are only a few named characters, notably Evita, Juan Peron, and a narrator called Che who weaves in and out of the action. The fictional Che (no discernible connection to the Cuban revolutionary) is a particularly inspired musical and dramatic tool. The narrative is presented almost entirely in song and dance, tracing Evita’s meteoric career, fleeing from her dull small-town life to the bright lights of Buenos Aires seeking fame and power. Harnessing her fierce ambition, her charisma, and her skill at sexual manipulation, Eva gains a national following as a radio personality and eventually snares Juan Peron as her cohort as he runs roughshod over his political opposition. Guiding her man with an iron grip, she becomes the power behind the throne, an adored heroine to millions of members of the Argentine underclass, but ruthless and self-centered beneath all her outward charm and humility.

The Drury Lane production lists 30 performers, most of them dancers who galvanize the show with their ensemble energy under the superb guidance of Marica Milgrom Dodge, who also directs the production. Dodge has rethought every scene in the show, shifting the score from basically a sequence of disconnected individual songs into a string of related numbers that strengthen and unify the narrative.

The cast list consists almost entirely of performers who will be unfamiliar to local audiences, but they all hit their marks dramatically and musically. Michelle Aravena delivers a superior performance as Evita, an exhausting role she handles eight times a week (on Broadway a substitute took the matinees). Aravena has a powerful voice, with the public Evita singing passionately for public consumption, and more coarsely as the private Evita who takes no prisoners as she claws her way to the pinnacle of Argentine life. Aravena is also a fine dancer and a persuasive actor, delivering a three dimensional performance of tremendous command.

Richard Bermudez is a sharp Che, not as angry and cynical as some I have seen, more of a bemused onlooker who both scorns and admires Evita as she rises in power, taking her country by the throat. Bermudez has a terrific voice and strong stage presence, holding his own with the more glamourous Evita. Sean MacLaughlin is the best Juan Peron I’ve seen, not only bearing a striking physical resemblance to the dictator but painting a superb portrait as a weak, sleazy, brutal man, willing to bail out of Argentine politics to the easy life in retirement, but Evita isn’t about to let go of her meal ticket, her personality dominating the craven Peron that MacLaughlin shapes with unexpected depth. And Paul Aguirre deserves a shout out as the comic figure of popular singer Augustín Magaldi, who plays the first step on Evita’s ladder to the top.

The Drury Lane revival is a feast of brilliant dancing created by the über-talented Dodge. The stage overflows with scintillating group numbers, peaking with the glorious “And the Money Keeps Rolling In,” which set the opening night audience whooping in approval. The best known song in the score is “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” an OK number that somehow became an international hit though there are better songs in the score, notably ‘High Flying Adored.”

The physical production profits from an effective bi-level set designed by Michael Schweikardt and the multitude of period costumes designed by Ryan Park, abetted by Yael Lubetsky’s lighting design and Ray Nardelli’s sound plan. Valerie Maze is the music director, Christopher Sargent conducts the fine seven-piece electronic pit orchestra.

There are a few quibbles. One of the show’s sure fire numbers is ”The Art of the Possible” performed by a group of army officers maneuvering for power. Normally the officers, in colorful uniform, go through a game of musical chairs until only one man is left standing (Peron). At Drury Lane the officers each play a large drum while dressed in bland fatigue costumes, which makes me suspect that some first-time viewers may be perplexed as to what this scene is trying to accomplish.

The final moment of the first act ends on a quiet note, displacing the tumultuous finale showing the working class rallying noisily for Peron’s presidency, and writing the death warrant for the country’s democratic government. At the end of the evening the action just stops and goes to blackout. For some reason the final few lines spoken after Evita’s death are omitted. They provide an ironic closure to Evita’s demise and seem worth retaining.

The above nit-picking aside, this is a premium version of one of the musical masterpieces of the last half century, to be enjoyed equally by audiences seeing the show for the first time and repeat customers who should be delighted by Dodge’s creative burnishing.

photos by Brett Beiner

Drury Lane Theatre
100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace
Wed at 1:30; Thurs at 1:30 & 8;
Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8; Sun at 2 & 6
ends on March 20,2022
for tickets, call 630.530.0111 or visit Drury Lane

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

Comments on this entry are closed.