Friday, September 28, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 99, A Preview: "Evita" (Act of CT)

By James V. Ruocco

The cast of "Evita" are in the middle of a rehearsal break.
Some are having lunch. Some are doing exercises. Some are texting. Some are chatting on their cell phones. Some are looking over the sheet music and mouthing the lyrics silently. Some are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get back into the theater to learn yet another piece of the puzzle that makes up this extraordinary Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical.

Who could blame them?

Beginning October 4th, the two-act musical will jump start ACT of  CT's new 2018-2019 season, a  diverse line-up of three musicals including the already mentioned "Evita" (Oct. 4-Nov.11), "Working" (Feb. 22-March 10) and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (May 31-June 16).

Picking "Evita" as the premiere attraction for the theater's first official full season (ACT began life this past spring with its sold-out debut production of "Mamma Mia!") was actually a stroke of genius and a no brainer. The two-act musical, which was originally booked through through Oct. 28, has already been extended two weeks. This, of course, is based entirely upon advance ticket sales, great pre-publicity, major theater chatter within and outside the community and the popularity of the actual story of Argentine first lady Eva Peron itself.

And so, it begins.
Daniel C. Levine, the Artistic Director of ACT of CT and director of "Evita" is thrilled to have said "Yes" to the musical's booking at the handsome, intimate Ridgefield-based venue.
"Those of us who are lucky enough to make a career in theater have that one show that inspired us when were were younger; the one show that lit a spark within us and made us say, 'I want to do that when I grow up!' "

For Levine, that show was "Evita."
His passion for the two-act musical began when he was quite young. The thrill of being an audience member and seeing the production for the very first time was one he has never forgotten.
"I saw a community theater production of 'Evita' in Massachusetts when I was about 10 years old," he recalls. "I remember sitting in that dark theater and being swept up in the music and in the story. While I didn't entirely comprehend what was unfolding in front of me, I remember understanding that this story deeply affected people watching it.
"How could an audience be so invested in the story of a woman they didn't even know? Why was the man who was sitting in front of me wiping away a tear as the lights faded at the end of the performance. That was the power of theater and good-storytelling. More importantly, that was the power of this enthralling story."

Throughout his career as both director and working actor, Levine has always wanted to be part of "Evita." He got the opportunity to play Che several years ago in a regional presentation of the musical. It was then that his passion for "Evita" was reawakened.
"When  Katie (Diamond) and I opened ACT of CT last May, we decided that 'Evita' should be part of our full season," he adds. "For those people not familiar with 'Evita,' I want them to fall in love with the show just like I did all those years ago."

Inside the theater, rehearsals begin.
Levine stakes the spotlight and asks his cast to participate in the presentation of three individual musical scenes: "Peron's Latest Flame," "The Art of the Possible" and "You Must Love Me."
No one is in costume. There are no lighting effects. There are sound effects. Just actors doing what they love and loving every minute of it. Simply brilliant.

What's especially unique about Levine's vision is that the actual staging of his "Evita" is completely different from that of the West End, Broadway and National Tour productions of  the same show. Here, there is a unique closeness not found in big, proscenium theater presentations which gives the piece a timely rawness and realness that is often voyeuristic.

To hear Levine tell it, none of this is accidental.
"Our intimate theater is the perfect venue for this show in my opinion," he relates."ACT of CT is a 180 seat theater, where the front row is literally 3 feet away from the actors. My concept was to have our audience feel a part of the story. Rather than watching it from far and seeing the story unfold, I wanted our production to include the audience, so that the audience feels as through the events are happening around them in real time."

It's a creative process that works most advantageously.
"While traditional 'Evita' productions can include a cast of up to 50 people, I was interested in telling this story with a much smaller acting company, " he adds. "If we could cast the right storytellers, this show could be effective with 16 actors as it is with 35. And boy, did we luck out with this company!"

"Evita" stars Julia Estrada as Eva Peron, Angel Lozada as Che Guevara, Ryan K. Bailer as Juan Peron, Julian Alvarez as Agustin Magaldi and Marlena Lopez-Hilderley as Peron's Mistress.
Ensemble members are Kyle White, Mia Scarpa, Paul Aguirre, Alex Caldwell,  Monica Ramierez, Morgan Harrison, Jordan Fife Hunt, Alison Mahoney, Daniel Marhelko, Erick Sanchez-Canahuate and Daniel Schwait.

From the beginning, the casting for this "Evita" was purposely authentic, honest and completely in sync with the Hispanic element of the production. "We felt strongly that our cast of 'Evita' should be heavily composed of Latinx talent," Levine explains. "I mean who better to perform in this than an acting company who represents the community that is meant to tell this riveting story? And that is not to say that non Latinx shouldn't be part of 'Evita' productions.
"Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin were the originals and truly made the show the success that it remains today! But I think than when presented with the opportunity for authenticity and diversity, one should grab it. And we did. I'm thrilled and excited that our 'Evita' has a large percentage of Latinx talent."

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice," the two-act musical traces the colorful life of Argentine political leader Eva Duarte Peron, the second wife of Argentine president Juan Peron. It follows her early life, her rise to power, her political tours, her charity work, her illness and her eventual death. Winner of six Tony Awards including  Best Musical," it features 30 songs including "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "Oh, What a Circus," "High Flying Adored," "A New Argentina" and "Another Suitcase, Another Hall."

Then as now, the story and its music account for the continued success of "Evita," its longevity and its reappearance on stages all over the world including ACT of CT.
And why not?
"Eva Peron was extraordinary," Levine confesses. "She rose to power in Argentina at a time when women were not ever allowed to vote. She was complex and controversial, but like all complicated figures, Eva's achievements were not without a downside. Although beloved by the working class, both she and her husband were seen as power hungry authoritarians who would stop at nothing for absolute control of the country."

That said, Levine thought long and hard about his vision of the "Evita" story.
As director, he not only wanted to portray this own take on the production, but offer theatergoers a musical that came from the heart and portrayed his own personal vision.
"For me, this script and score is just so fantastic and complete, that I feel my job as director is to just tell the story that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote," he says. "There's no need to completely reinvent 'Evita' by cleverly finding new and interesting slants on the story.
"While I certainly have my own view on how the story of Eva and Juan Peron parallels today's political climate, I leave it to the audience to draw any comparisons (or not). That's the beauty of theater. Everyone has their own interpretations of experiences."

"Evita" is being staged at Act of CT (36 Old Quarry Rd, Ridgefield, CT).
For tickets or more information, call (475) 215-5433.

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