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Theater Review: "Evita"

 Marisa Matthews as "Eva Perón" in EVITA
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Eva Perón is a great subject for theater.

Here’s a poor but pretty and extremely ambitious girl from Nowhere, Argentina who sleeps her way to the presidential mansion in Buenos Aires, not only marrying strongman Juan Perón but becoming an icon and a near saint in the process. What’s more dramatic than that?

Lyricist Tim Rice had the idea that became a rock opera concept album in 1976, an actual rock opera a few years later. With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, “Evita” took Broadway by storm in 1979, winning seven Tonys.

San Diego Repertory Theatre, in association with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, presents “Evita” through Aug. 27 on the Rep’s Lyceum Stage. Director Sam Woodhouse uses about two dozen of these extraordinarily talented students in the large cast and orchestra. 

You’ll see them at the top, as working-class Argentinians (“descamisados” or shirtless ones) trudging off to work. These will become Evita’s “people,” the ones who will respond to her as to no other politician and will eventually regard her as a saint.

In the first act, we watch Evita’s climb to the top, first seducing lounge singer Magaldi (Victor Chan) into taking her to Buenos Aires, later engineering a meeting with Perón (Jason Maddy), where she convinces him that “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You.” 

An Everyman character called Che (originally conceived as revolutionary Che Guevara; later used as a Greek chorus and played wonderfully by Jeffrey Ricca) acts as narrator, sometimes questioning her and in fact accusing Evita (Marisa Matthews) of not doing enough good work.

The second act takes Evita on foreign tours, where she finds both more adoration and more disdain (the aristocracy never warmed to her either at home or abroad) as she represents Argentina. Her fame brings her money as well, and rather like Princess Diana, she establishes a charitable foundation.

Also like Diana, Evita will die young – at 33, of cancer, leaving her adoring fans bereft and Perón without the populist following he had on loan from her.

It’s easy to see Evita as simply a cynical gold-digger and to dismiss her charitable foundation as one of the first tax dodges (as Rice and Webber do), but it cannot be denied that she spoke out for labor rights and women’s suffrage. These are the real reasons they responded to – and loved – her. (It’s also easy to see parallels with a certain American president, who also seeks adoration.) 

Maddy and Matthews are good foils for each other as Perón and Evita – he, serious and humorless; she, pretty, charming and genuinely interested in others. And they both have the acting and musical chops to make these characters come alive.

The drawbacks of the show are inherent and attributable to Lloyd Webber’s lack of interest in writing original music for each song. His tendency to write one good song and reprise it (sometimes changing tempo, meter or harmony) drives me crazy, but I am apparently in the minority.

(The snark in me wants to say that director Sam Woodhouse, realizing that “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is the only good song in the show – and that it is repeated several times, sometimes slightly disguised – decided that there was no need to put it in the song list.)

Sean Fanning’s set has a distinctly “descamisado” look about it. Nothing fancy here, though it is dual-level and sports a very scary, steep set of rolling stairs that the dying Evita scales to speak to her adoring public. 

But I’m not going to cry much for this “Evita.” It’s not my favorite show, but the professional cast is uniformly fine and the students impressive, especially in Javier Velasco’s dance sequences – the best parts of the show – which are executed with great skill as well as youthful verve and enthusiasm.

The details

“Evita” plays through August 27, 2017 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.

Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m. (Aug. 13 also at 2 p.m.)

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.orghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6NnUpp-Dw4