Highly Recommended 'Evita' at The Marriott Theatre
What are you going to get in The Marriott Theatre’s latest revival of “Evita”? Star Quality…and plenty of it in the form of actress and singer Hannah Corneau. Remember that name because you will likely be hearing it a great deal to come if the opening night performance in Lincolnshire was any indication. Ms. Corneau simply sets the in-the-round stage ablaze with a stunning portrayal of the late First Lady of Argentina, which wholly invigorates Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s often-revived rock opera. Just in case you were thinking this 38-year-old chestnut has nothing left to do or say, let’s take a look at some of the ways Director and Choreographer Alex Sanchez has dusted off the cobwebs and reclaimed this gleaming musical tiara.
One need only look to the current national headlines to realize the political and social significance of a piece chronicling the rise and fall of a low-born illegitimate woman who championed the rights of the poor and middle-class to become not only the most powerful and controversial woman of her country but a legend long celebrated post-mortem. Eva Peron was and is beloved by many, hated and reviled by others and the center of endless fascination and intrigue. Even her tragic death at 33 was shrouded in mystery as her embalmed corpse disappeared for 17 years, resurfacing only slightly tarnished. Only the pedestal was completed for a monument that had been planned in her honor, but in 1978 she re-gained the legend she was always destined for, as the title character in an all-sung musical by a young up and coming British composer and lyricist that might also be thought of as “Eva Peron Superstar”.
Webber and Rice took a boldly acerbic approach to the Cinderella climb of “Santa Eva,” funneled through the eyes of a cynical narrator and commentator modeled on the Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara. Even as it opens with the death and a haunting requiem mass for the leading lady, “Evita” goes on to show us a fiery and determined woman who clawed, charmed and screwed her way to the top of a national heap. There can be little doubt that the road to corruption is often lined with good intentions, and it is debatable that the Peron’s rule may have done as much harm as good for their country.
What is especially evident was the amount of old-fashioned Hollywood gloss only an actress could bring to a blatant Socialist agenda. Tim Rice’s scathing lyrics allow us to ponder the magical effects of charisma and stage management that frequently shrouded good deeds among corruption and self-glorification. Hollywood film director Alan Parker gave us a kinder and gentler version of this tale as a showcase for mega-star Madonna in 1996. The Marriott has now returned the work to its more cynical roots (as well as the original vocal demands) while also showing Juan and Eva Peron as soul mates who complimented and elevated rather than eclipsed one another.
It is the star-wattage performance of Hannah Corneau in the title role, however, that elevates the Marriott’s third production of Evita to the level of “must see theatre”. Just as the real Eva Peron seduced a nation, Corneau completely seduces and captivates her audience. If her soaring soprano belting does not win you over by itself then her acting surely will. Every nuance of this striking woman’s facial expressions and body language reveal the intriguing woman Eva most certainly was. The fact that she was cut down in the prime of both life and career make “Evita” a tragic heroine regardless of her political contradictions. But there is nothing tragic in Corneau’s uncompromising and thrilling performance.
Fully matching Corneau is the magnificent, masculine and commanding Larry Adams as her equally conniving partner and political climber, Colonel and eventual President Juan Peron. This is a role that often gets left in the shadows of the heroine, but Director Sanchez wisely avoids that trap. He interpolates “You Must Love Me” from the film adaptation, which effectively underscores Eva’s final descent and realization that she and Juan shared a love story born of mutual accommodation. Austin Lesch’s reedy tenor is not in their vocal league, but he does present a delightfully animated, hilarious and frequently intense contrast as the antagonist Che.
Artistry abounds as one can expect from a Marriott Theatre production. Rather than offering a standard issue cookie cutter version of Director Hal Prince’s landmark original, Alex Sanchez’s fresh and intelligent choices bring Evita’s story to exciting life again on stage. Gone is the movie theatre opening with its ensemble suddenly plunged into collective morbidity. Instead, Sanchez shows us a single family surrounding a radio that carries the tragic announcement and its very personal effect on Eva Peron’s devoted “Descamisados” or “shirtless ones”. The rise and political coup of Peronista gets an equally clever choreographed arm wrestling match played out by a succession of contenders that reminds us the truth that politics is the art of the possible.
Eva and Juan’s courtship, sung and danced to the tango strains of “I’d be Surprisingly Good for You,” moves the couple from the sidelines to the center of the action where they belong. Eva’s ruthless usurping of Peron’s Mistress gives the beguiling Eliza Palasz full opportunity to win our sympathies as she and her meager possessions are literally dumped on the ground by a graceless diva. Palasz’s beautiful rendition of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is among the many vocal highlights of the evening. And the hard-working ensemble delivers powerhouse talent and chameleon-like dexterity as it scales the upper and lower classes of Argentine society, military, peasants and workers.
Although Thomas M. Ryan’s set design is necessarily spare and skeletal, it remains ideally functional and beautifully lit by designer Jesse Klug. Note how Klug drains the leading lady of all color in her final “Lament,” leaving a pale, glimmering ghost recounting that “the choice was mine and mine completely.” What a powerful and perfect fusion of performance, design, music and lyrics and history. In this particularly raucous Election Year it is well worth looking back at a woman who made and shaped history, and also to ponder whether history merits repeating.