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Marriott's well-sung 'Evita' still a timeless tale

★ ★ ★

"Oh what a circus. Oh what a show."

On opening night of Marriott Theatre's "Evita," I couldn't help thinking how the lyrics Tim Rice penned 40 years ago reflect so thoroughly today's zeitgeist.

The "circus" Argentine outsider Che refers to accompanies the transformation of Eva Duarte, whose rise from poverty to the pinnacle of power as the first lady of Argentina is chronicled in the 1976 musical by Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the circus reference easily describes 2016's political "show," where ambition and spectacle often trump experience and substance in the political arena.

As it does now, an undercurrent of frustration, unrest and fear among the populace accompanies Rice's and Webber's fictionalized account. Add class conflict, economic uncertainty and a distrust of outsiders and you've got a musical that feels like it could have been composed yesterday.

But it's not the only reason this fictionalized character study endures.

Tightly written, albeit musically repetitive, "Evita" boasts shrewd lyrics and a Latin-infused score comprised of lilting tangos, plaintive ballads and a recurring requiem accented by angry guitars and a judicious use of dissonance. It has as its central character a charismatic public figure who inspired legions of devotees who hailed Eva as a saint, as well as detractors who labeled her and her husband, Argentine President Juan Peron, as fascists who offered Nazi war criminals refuge.

All in all, it's an engaging tale, compellingly told by director/choreographer Alex Sanchez. Marriott's robustly sung and beautifully choreographed revival is a witty, passionate production that superbly showcases Sanchez's classically infused, tango-centric choreography. It's evident in the "The Art of the Possible," a deliciously tangled tango where soldiers compete for political position in a series of increasingly menacing pas de deux.

A sense of humor underscores the production's canny caricatures of Argentina's stiff-lipped upper crust and its military, which Sanchez cleverly portrays as a band of petulant martinets.

Kudos to music director Ryan T. Nelson, conductor Patti Garwood and Marriott's 10-piece orchestra, which ably complements a fine ensemble.

Much of the show's success rests on the shoulders of Hannah Corneau. A petite powerhouse whose bold, blazing voice is also capable of great subtlety, Corneau plays the vocally demanding titular role, with Samantha Pauly alternating for select performances.

Born on the wrong side of the blanket in rural Argentina, Eva Duarte moves to the capital Buenos Aires where she becomes a successful actress. She also catches the eye of soldier-turned-politician Juan Peron (brilliantly sung by Larry Adams). They conceive their romantic and political partnership in the calculating, seductive tango "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You." Soon after, following Peron's 1946 election, Eva enjoys her greatest success as Argentina's first lady. But it's short-lived, like Evita herself, who died in 1952 at age 33.

David Schlumpf, another fine singer, radiates a self-important seductiveness as nightclub singer Augustin Magaldi, the first man Eva uses to advance her career. Newcomer Eliza Palasz is exquisite as Peron's vulnerable young mistress -- replaced by Eva -- who ponders her fate in the plaintive "Another Suitcase in Another Hall."

Narrating Eva's ascent and decline is Che, the young activist/revolutionary who questions her motives and challenges the Santa Evita myth. Broadway veteran Austin Lesch brings a ferocious energy to the role, but his performance is rooted almost exclusively in anger. Lesch plays resentment well, especially in the "Waltz for Eva and Che," a simmering duet in which he and Corneau circle each other like prizefighters in the final round. But too often, his performance comes across as one-note.

That's not the case for Corneau, whose transition from reserve to steely resolve during the terrific balcony scene -- including the signature "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" reveal a performance of some depth. Watching Corneau, I couldn't help wondering if Eva's sentiment was genuine. That I did testifies to Corneau's skill and "Evita's" continued resonance.