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Marriott's 'Evita' confirms musical's power, relevance

"Oh what a circus, oh what a show," Che Guevara sings, at the top of his first number in "Evita," the Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) musical now receiving a thrilling, innovative and supremely well sung revival at the Marriott Theatre, just one hour south of Milwaukee.

Every time I see this 1970s musical, the more prescient it seems about the way we live now, which is another way of saying that in 2016, politics and entertainment have become indistinguishable. The actress who became the populist political demagogue we know as Evita – while turning Argentine politics into theater – has a lot in common with the likes of Donald Trump.

The Marriott production is intensely theatrical.

Part of that is the Marriott's in-the-round seating, coupled with actors who double as stagehands, creating each scene.

Part of it is the quick changes through which a brunette named Eva becomes the blonde Evita; watching lab-coated members of the ensemble swirl around Eva while dressing her vividly illustrates what Eva means when singing "I'm their product; it's vital you sell me." Later, Eva will literally strip the clothes from the backs of the rich, underscoring that we are what we wear.

Finally, a huge part of this production's theatricality involves director and choreographer Alex Sanchez's terrific staging.

The number in which a young Eva dances her way into Buenos Aires introduces a big-canvassed story of the three sectors – military, British aristocracy and the people – jostling for power. I've never seen an "Evita" more attuned to the historical context within which it unfolds; heightening our sense of Argentina's class-based tensions increases our sympathies for an initially poor woman who was fueled by them and also shamelessly used them for her own ends.

The game of musical chairs catapulting Perón (a charismatic Larry Adams) to power plays out as a series of intimate, nearly homoerotic dances among the generals that devolve into brutal wrestling matches. It's counterpointed with the expansive exuberance of the people, filling the stage en route to proving what Perón claims: they're easily manipulated.

Hannah Corneau's single-purposed Eva is more than willing to pull the strings; she can be as "hungry and cold" as Magaldi the tango singer (a fun David Schlumpf) suggests, before Eva casts him and Perón's mistress (a poignant, beautifully voiced Eliza Palasz) to the side.

Yes: Corneau's Eva can be uncertain and insecure. And yes: One sees a flicker of tender regard for the people as Corneau sings Eva's signature number, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." But only as this hard-edged Eva begins to die does she truly begin to soften and live, resulting in a credibly plaintive "Lament" near journey's end.

Meanwhile, Austin Lesch's Che watches Eva's progress, which he regularly interrupts with sardonic asides.

This Che doesn't have the passion or intensity with which Mandy Patinkin stamped the role in a searing, Tony-winning performance that sticks with me more than 30 years later.

But Lesch compensates with an edgy, ironic humor – something this piece needs if it's not going to present as a lugubrious melodrama. And as he chronicles Eva's seemingly irresistible rise, Lesch conveys Che's own growing fascination with a woman he loves to hate but can't let go.

Evita had – still has, among huge parts of the Argentine population – that sort of magnetic pull; one of this musical's many strengths is that it suggests the fascist she was while nevertheless recognizing how mesmerizing she could be. I heard many people humming "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" as I left the theater. I was one of them.


Saint Che: The olive-green battle fatigues worn by Lesch's Che are initially cloaked in a monk's robe and cowl – true to the real Che's ascetic nature and to the way he, like Eva, was unofficially canonized by his devoted followers. Both Argentines offer illustrative examples of how a cult of personality gets spawned in politics. Both smudge the line between entertainment and politics. Both espoused a populist commitment to the people.

The Ambiguous Perón: Viewed in this context, it's not surprising that when a once-exiled Perón made his dramatic return to power in 1973 – more than two decades after Eva's death – he was claimed by both the far left and the far right in Argentine politics. This musical helps explain why (in this production, Adams' Perón literally sings as well as talks out the side of his mouth). Much more substantively, so does Argentine novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez's excellent "The Perón Novel" (1985), which uses that 1973 return from exile to explore the collective political dreams and fantasies of the Argentine people – as well as why so many on the left who should have known better nevertheless tried to stake a claim to the Perón legacy.

The Center of Attention: Late in the first act, Argentina's military castigates Perón for allowing Eva – "a bit on the side" – "to move to the center where she's not qualified." That line takes on added meaning within the Marriott's in-the-round format, in which the initially sidelined Eva really does move toward and then tenaciously hold the center of both the stage and the entire house. Sanchez's choreography also frequently involves coalescing circular formations, as once disparate strands of the Argentine social fabric – messy, fractious, and ragged – are relentlessly pulled into Eva's orbit.

Politics as Performance: Even when Eva isn't singing to the masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, this onetime Argentine actress is always performing. She's not the only one, which is why platforms of differing heights continually emerge from various trap doors, allowing the many actors in Argentina's political drama to perform. Characters in "Evita" are continually playing to an audience, much as the actors bringing those characters to life play for us.

Shutters and Chandeliers: Thomas M. Ryan's set design includes numerous clapboard shutters, suspended above the stage at various angles (some of these suspended shutters initially lie flat and perpendicular to the stage and are then angled during the show into new positions). At various points, the shutters give way to dropped chandeliers.

This set-up efficiently distinguishes between scenes unfolding in the street and those taking place behind closed doors. It captures the class-based dichotomy between rough-hewn everyday life and Argentina's glittering haut monde. And the shutters abet Jesse Klug's often crepuscular lighting design, in a world where a crisscross between light and shadow suggests Argentina's long day's journey into night under Perónist rule.