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And 'Evita' Keeps Rolling In

That great balcony scene is back. No, not R&J. It’s the one with Eva Duarte Perón’s valedictory aria “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” As this princess of the pampas in a prom dress chokes, then belts out, the second-act opening of the 1978 musical, all the right buttons get pushed: The Casa Rosada confessional delivers the peak payoff in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s perennially popular Evita. Even witnessed in-the-round, with her back to one fourth of the audience in this otherwise excellent Marriott Theatre venture, Hannah Corneau’s whore-turned-icon commands the arena stage. It’s a microcosm of the “star quality” that the mistress-wife of dictator Juan Peron indulged and inflicted on Argentina for a mere eight years. (Samantha Pauly plays Eva at select performances.)

It’s so wrong for Evita’s accuser and nemesis, the show’s narrator and conscience Che (Austin Lesch, merrily taunting and teasing), to sing that “she did nothing for years.” As if knowing she had so little time, she did too much that needed undoing. For 140 minutes the musical’s newsreel-like exposition belies that silly critique: We see Evita rejecting small-town persecution as her father’s unacknowledged whelp, exploiting a tango singer (David Schlumpf as Magaldi) who takes her to Buenos Aires, turning soap-opera radio star at 22, then, two years later, seducing an up-and-coming general at an earthquake benefit and displacing his mistress (Eliza Palasz).

After that the respectable Senora Perón (now 27) becomes a self-made saint, embarking on an ill-fated PR “Rainbow Tour” of Europe, promoting her larcenous charitable Fundación (an early tax shelter), and unsuccessfully scheming to become Vice President to her upstaged hubby. Completing her own canonization, she dies young at 33 and leaves behind a corpse that over the next 17 years traveled almost as much as she did.

What fascinates with Evita is the creators’ love-hate ambivalence over the title — what? — martyr, monster, dominatrix, proto-feminist heroine. The revulsion against this pushy parvenu doesn’t just erupt from the military or plutocracy: Che’s running jeremiads indict her for betraying the descamisados (shirtless ones) who she first championed, oppressing the press, and stripping Argentina of gold reserves, beef exports, and, not incidentally, human rights. But, as the musical exists to prove, she did it with such style.

So does director/choreographer Alex Sanchez’s sterling revival. Corneau’s “high flying adored” moves from self-pity to self-aggrandizement with the inevitability of regime change, her rise richly ridiculed and circumscribed by Lesch’s manic counterpoint. (Corneau works wonders with “You Must Love Me,” a sweet ballad written for Madonna and the movie and wisely added to the musical.) In between the trollop’s reactionary glamour and Che’s socialist purity lies Larry Adams’s perfectly passive Perón, an epaulette-clad thug who’s smart enough to bask in Eva’s powers to persuade and conceal. (“I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You” is perhaps the most understated song title ever.)

All the big musical and political moments are appropriately larger-than-life, especially the “A New Argentina” first-act rouser and the cavalcade of corruption in “And The Money Came Rolling In.” Predictably reliable, Thomas M. Ryan’s evocative set pieces, Nancy Missimi’s Dior-drenched costumes, and Jesse Klug’s class-conscious lighting effects only require Ryan T. Nelson’s consummate musical direction and a golden ensemble to make this rock/soap opera soar. You can even forgive Tim Rice’s forced and clumsy lyrics—almost.