By James V. Ruocco
If you dream hard enough, it with happen.
For Daniel C. Levine, that dream began at the tender age of 10 when he sat in a darkened theater watching a community theater production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical "Evita."
Thrilled, excited, dazzled and charged by the electricity and theatricality of that moment, he vowed to one day be part of an "Evita" production that would challenge him, entice him, move him and push his creativity level to the max as both storyteller and interpreter.
Flash forward to October, 2018.
At ACT of CT, the stunning new Equity showcase that sprang to life earlier this year with "Mamma Mia!," Levine's dream of directing "Evita" finally became a reality when the two-act musical was added to the 2018-2019 full season line up as the opening show. His feet haven't touched the ground ever since.
His "Evita" makes for captivating, spectacular, beguiling musical theater.
It is chock full of the romantic ambivalence, glory-chasing tirades, political debates, sexual ambiguity, bitter, ironic commentary and cult celebrity worship dictated by its originators. But the comparisons stop there.
This "Evita" dances to its own individual beat.
Reimagined, retooled, reworked and revitalized, Levine sets the ACT of CT stage ablaze with a fiery, vivid interpretation bathed in cynicism, rage, calculation, wistfulness and jaw-dropping spectacle.
He not only makes you forget everything you already know and love about the London, Broadway and National Touring editions of "Evita," but uses his creative juices so advantageously, you feel as if you are seeing and experiencing "Evita" for the very first time.
In this version, Eva Peron, Argentina's favorite leading lady and political wife means business. Turn your back on her and she'll snap you in half.
Arguably, this is the best Equity production of "Evita" in the last decade or two. From the very first moment the musical begins, in the very assured hands of Levine, a fresh electricity and dazzle permeates his confident, multi-layered vision of the of-told story. It is textured. It is nuanced. It is raw. It is real. It is honest. It is flavorful. It is complex.
As "Evita" unfolds, Levine pays close attention to the rise and fall of Eva Peron, Che's deliberate stalking of the sainted Eva, her bedroom theatrics, the rapidly accelerating momentum of the fortune's made/fortune's fade agenda and the twisty machinations that thrust her to the top of her game before it all comes crashing down and the spotlight fades forever.
Staging "Evita," Levine brings a seamless energy to the musical, offset by artistic choices that are revolutionary, spirited and different from other incarnations. Che, grabbing a framed photo of Eva, during the opening funeral interval and singing with unbridled sarcasm, is a choice moment that heightens the musical's velocity. Elsewhere, Eva's removal of Peron's Mistress from the bedroom unfolds with more rage and nasty calculation. The expert revision and reworking of the epic, final montage which includes the reappearance of Person's Mistress and the entire Argentine populace during Eva's last moments, astonishes. Levine also adds much more passion and romance to the Eva/Juan Peron love story, which in turn, gives it added allure, heat and sexual tension. Under Levine's watchful eye, the actual Casa Rosada balcony is the the exact same color as the real one in Buenos Aires. There's also a natural, refreshing intimacy to the piece, which at times thrusts the audience into the pending action as both voyeur and participant. Simply amazing.
The "rock opera" show score for "Evita," as written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), contains 30 well-placed, positioned and timed musical numbers that carry the story and its characters through both Act I and Act II with the buzz and intoxication of topicality and timeliness intended by its creators. Ambitious, vital, classic and passionate, the songs include "Requiem for Evita," "Oh What a Circus," "Buenos Aires," "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," "A New Argentina," "High Flying Adored," "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" and "And the Money Keeps Rolling In." "You Must Love Me," written for the 1996 film adaptation of "Evita," is also included. It was added to subsequent revivals of the musical, beginning in 2006 with the West End London production in addition to the 2011 Broadway incarnation that starred Elena Roger, Ricky Martin and Michael Cerveris. It works wonderfully here.
Then and now, the character-driven South-American inflicted music, coupled with the rags-to-riches story of a fiercely-driven, independent woman who becomes the wife of Argentine President Juan Peron and achieves sainted, cult, celebratory status with the adoring populace is epic, revolutionary, and challenging.
Music direction for this "Evita" is provided by Evan Roider, a deft, capable, hands-on musician who spent the last year as assistant conductor for the North American tour of "Les Miserables." Among his other credits are "The Pirates of Penzance" for Barrington Stage Company, "The Golden Apple" for Encores!, "Candide" for St, Luke's Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and "Company" for Playhouse on Park.
What's remarkable here is Roider's bright, invigorating perspective toward the "Evita" material and its evolution throughout the Eva Peron story. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know the lyrics. Yes, we know the interludes, the epic passion and the pauses used for dramatic effect. We also know the fluent beats and rhythmic musicality as officiated by Webber . Regardless, this "Evita" often takes us by surprise, as though we are hearing "Oh What A Circus," "Buenos Aries," "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "High Flying Adored," "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You" and "A New Argentina" for the very first time.
Elsewhere, there is just the right amount of attitude, pulse, frankness and ambivalence in Roider's musical and orchestral depiction of Argentina's sanctified first lady. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is copycated. Nothing is overplayed or overdramatized. Here, you get blunt, biting, beautifully amplified words that resound with the sting and scope Rice intended. Roider also amps up the music when necessary or takes chances by playing things differently or adding 30 or 40 seconds of scoring here and there for added dramatic effect. No matter. The whole expressive world of the "Evita" score is perfectly evoked under his skill tutelage, and then some.
Choice, exacting, pitch-perfect music supervision by the versatile and talented Bryan Perri (Resident Music Supervisor for ACT of CT and musical director for Broadway's "Wicked") also heightens the reverent, vocal richness of the "Evita" experience.
For "Evita," choreographer Charlie Sutton ("Young Charles Dickens," "Wringer," "Gregorian") has devised a thrilling, dynamic, wide range of movements, patterns, pairings and groupings that marvelously punctuate Eva's journey from poverty and backstreet whore to upward rise as visionary, celebrity and cult icon. In turn, every one of the dances and musical numbers requiring specific choreographic stylization, unfolds with the intoxicating sweep and passion required to unleash the ambitions, politics, propaganda, sarcasm and disenchantment of the "Evita" blueprint.
But there is no copycating, as this "Evita" is decidedly different from the Broadway, London and National Tour editions of the musical. Here, Sutton dances to his own rhythms and creates a wide range of dynamics and moods that are fast, fluid, fiery, muscular and graceful. The texture and presentation is powerful and juicy. The stop and go speed and slowness is impeccably timed. There's also lots of twists, turns, jumping, stomping, dipping and holding, performed with wild, gleeful abandon by the entire "Evita" cast. Sutton also retains the musical's steamy, hallmark Argentine flavor, which is dutifully reflected in many of the show's big dance numbers. It's all quite visionary, kinetic and atmospherically smoldering.
To portray Eva Peron, Levine has cast the captivating, wonderfully compelling Julia Estrada to take center stage as Juan Peron's grand, glamorous, calculating, self-absorbed wife and lover. A brilliant actress and singer, she boldly steps into the iconic role made famous by Elaine Paige in London and Patti LuPone on Broadway and makes you forget everything you know and remember about their very, very different portrayals of Argentina's first lady.
It's a fearless, dynamic performance that is breathless, beguiling, determined, urgent and awe-inspiring. That said, this is Estrada's role from start to finish. It's a part the actress was destined to play and play it shes does. She soars. She flies. She enchants. She sky rockets. She also summons up every emotion imaginable to make us feel and believe what the character is thinking, experiencing and desiring.
What's equally impressive about Estrada's work (ovation worthy at every turn) is her actual grasp of the character and her desire to take the part far beyond the confines of the proven Broadway musical. Her Eva is much more calculating, self-absorbed, egotistical and predatory. It's a creative process that builds and builds over the course of the two-act musical and one that the actress cultivates with effortless style, depth and precision. Mess with this Eva and she'll snap you in two, eat you for breakfast, knock you down a flight of stairs, cut you completely out of her life or look you straight in the eye, smile and say "Fuck you."
Addressing the pungent and popular "Evita" vocals, which include "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "Buenos Aires," "High Flying Adored," "Rainbow Tour," "You Must Love Me" and "A New Argentina," Estrada's quick, expertly timed transitions from powerhouse belt to liquid loveliness or melodic sweetness (or back and forth again, depending on the musical score) is both commanding and seamless. She never once channels or copycats the show's female originators. Instead, she is a whirlwind of versatility who puts her own personal stamp on the vocals, thus, creating a thrilling musicality that passionately reflects Eva's calculated ambitions, her impassioned climb to the top, her love of Peron and his politics, her iconic star quality with the Argentine populace and finally, her fall and unexpected death decree.
Pivotal to the musical telling of "Evita," is the character of Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary, who serves as Greek chorus member, narrator, observer, commentator and storyteller, all rolled into one. It's a choice, distinctive role that requires a strong, personable actor and singer who must not only click immediately with the audience, but guide them along on that amazing journey that is "Evita."
Angel Lozada, as Che, accepts that challenge and steps into the spotlight full force to enlighten and entertain both the on-stage actors and audience with the glamorous, tawdry, opportunistic and political events of Eva's life (in reality, they never actually met) and what they actually mean, using the full operatic sweep and drama of the subject matter.
Completely at ease with the robust, often acerbic Webber-Rice material, the actor takes his role seriously and keeps his audience riveted and entertained using the fiery, three-ring circus brio the musical is famous for. Vocally, he is in fine voice projecting the manipulation, edge, sarcasm and disappointment associated with his stellar music numbers ("Oh What a Circus," "A New Argentina," High Flying Adored," "And the Money Keeps Rolling In," "Rainbow Tour"). It's a driven, five-star performance that brings an emotional roundness and strength to the production and hits the mark on all accounts.
As Juan Peron, the founder and leader of the Peronist political movement, Ryan K. Bailer offers a suave, forceful, passionate character turn, very different from that of Bob Gunton who originated the part in the original Broadway production and Michael Cerveris who played the same role in the 2012 Broadway revival. In this "Evita," we get a more handsome, grounded, politically powerful Peron that stands tall and proud. It's a well-acted dramatic turn, offset by strong, expressive vocals ("The Art of the Possible," "A New Argentina," "She is a Diamond," "Dice Are Rolling") that intuitively reveals Peron's upper-class persona, his political agenda, his selflessness, his worship of Eva and lastly, his acceptance of her idol worship by the Argentine populace.
Charismatic and appealing Julian Alvarez, as Magaldi, the smoldering, narcissistic tango/milonga singer whom Eva charms, seduces and beds as her transport ticket to the cosmopolitan capital city of Buenos Aires, delivers a smooth, distinctive, wry characterization that is peppered with real emotion and humanity, punctuated by appropriate dash, sleaze, suave and egotism.
Vocally, he creates a strong, harmonious impression with the tango-tinged "On This Night of a Thousand Stars," coupled with rich, passionate phrasing and enunciation that reflects the original intent, sarcasm and meaning of the material as dictated by the show's creators. Alvarez also diligently doubles as actor, singer and dancer in the "Evita" ensemble, using the same dash and spirit exuded as Magaldi. If anyone is doing the musical "Nine," pick up the phone and ring Alvarez. He'd be perfect for the lead role of disillusioned filmmaker Guido Contini.
Marlena Lopez Hilderley is cast in the supporting role of Peron's Mistress, a young, attractive woman who is shown the door in quick, assumptive fashion by Eva whose capacity for cruelty and ruthlessness knows no boundaries. But before she disappears into the Argentine moonlight, she pauses and delivers "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," a haunting, brokenhearted rendition of this quietly understated lyrical solo. This lament is performed with such exemplary beauty and clarity by the actress/singer, it is just as magical as the one set forth by Siobhan McCarthy in the original West End/London production of "Evita" and that of Jane Ohringer, who assumed the role on Broadway, a year later.
Representing the "Evita" ensemble are Daniel Marhelko, Alex Caldwell, Mia Scarpa, Jordan Fife Hunt, Paul Aguirre, Monica Ramirez, Alison Mahoney, Morgan Harrison, Erick Sanchez-Canahuate, Kyle White and Daniel Schwait. Handpicked by Levine, Roider and Sutton, they are a talented, driven group of actors, singers and dancers who exhibit the kind of professional showmanship and versatility that gives this production its dazzle, verve, punch and atmospheric frenzy. As "Evita" unfolds, they assume a variety of different roles entering or exiting the stage as one set of characters, reappearing only seconds later as someone else, replete with different costumes (Brenda Phelps' costume design for the entire cast is absolutely stunning) and a completely different mindset.
Vocally, they are outstanding. Their choral sound, often amped up by the sound team to suggest an even richer chorus, doubled in size, (via echo-type sound maneuvers and other tricks of the trade) gives this "Evita" an incredible vocal kick that thrills and excites every step of the way. As dancers, everyone adapts to Sutton's atmospheric, complex choreographic beats, rhythms and pairings with proper agility, fire and intensity. Simply incredible.
"Evita" is a magnificent achievement for ACT of CT. Daniel C. Levine's direction is creative, liberating and joyously syncopated. Every song style and melody that Evan Roider instructs his brilliant orchestral team to play has purpose beyond its initial meaning. Charlie Sutton's lively, flavorsome choreography unfolds with great professional skill. The artistic choices and spirit of the entire cast carry the musical story forward in all its impassioned glory.
And finally, the power and gleam of this stunning revival lies in its ability to reawaken the oft-told story of Eva Peron and make it look and feel undeniably present (Jack Mehler's moody, smokey, atmospheric set and lighting design is gorgeously conceived) as though we are seeing it for the very first time. It's quite an accomplishment and one this Ridgefield-based Equity showcase delivers with a theatrical exuberance and wealth of ambition that literally takes your breath away.
Jeff Butchen Photography
"Evita" is being staged at ACT of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd., Ridgefield, CT), now through November 11.
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433.