Denise and I attended a performance of Evita tonight at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. It was Denise's first time at this theater, although I've been there a number of times, either solo or with my daughter (and sometimes my niece).
This was the fullest I've ever seen this theater, probably due to the popularity of the show Evita itself. It's one of my favorites, maybe Andrew Lloyd Webber's best other than The Phantom of the Opera. The downstairs portion of the theater seemed to be just sold out, although there were still seats to be had in theater's small balcony.
Now the last time I saw Evita, it was a performance at The Gateway Playhouse in Patchogue a number of years ago. And while The Gateway always does very professional productions, I left the theater really disappointed that night, because I thought the director had made a fundamental error that ruined the performance, which was this: He made Evita thoroughly unlikable.
I'm not going to pretend I have any in depth knowledge of Argentine history, or about the historical characters of Eva and Juan Peron, so when I speak about them, I'm talking about them entirely as characters within this play. And for me, the play itself doesn't work unless the character of Eva is at least somewhat sympathetic. Because there's just no one else to hang your emotions on. You certainly can't root for the aristocratic slobs who look down on her, or on the generals and politicians who call her a "slut" who should spend her time "looking at the ceiling instead of reaching for the stars." And you can't really root for the cynical Che, who with all of his wit and his (admittedly sometimes valid) criticisms, is ... well ... a dick. He's an acerbic tool who suffers from ... dare I say it? ... EDS (Evita Derangement Syndrome). And you can tell that Tim Rice (the lyricist) isn't pushing him as someone with whom to sympathize, because in the original concept album, it's made clear he's a total hypocrite -- he's originally very pro-Peron, but only becomes disenchanted with the Perons when they brush him off as he's trying to get some kind of government backing for some dopey bug spray he's invented. (I think it was bug spray, anyway -- I can't find it online right now, and I'm not going to go back through the album to verify it.)
SO getting back to the production at hand, the Smithtown PAC had a winning script on their hands for this run. How did they do with it?
Overall, I'd say pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good.
The set was fine. The director (Ronald Green III) made some good choices throughout. I liked the way they often showed old black-and-white film historical clips of the real-life Perons in the background in between scenes.
They had a few physical problems -- Evita lost her wig once, and lost her hat about three times while she was dancing, but the cast handled it well. The choreography was better than I've been used to at shows at this theater, probably because my old friend Ashley Nicastro was the choreographer for this show. (I say "old friend" jokingly. I've never actually met the woman, but it seems that lately, almost every time I write a theater review of a Long Island production, I look in my program and discover that she was the choreographer. She's been doing a lot of the shows at the CM Playhouse in Oakdale recently, so I was surprised to see her now working for the Smithtown PAC as well). There was one minor collision during a dance, but I suspect that was more the fault of the actor than it was of Nicastro.
The music was provided by eight live musicians (who I guess were backstage, as there isn't an orchestra pit in this theater). I was a little nervous about this at first -- I've gotten kind of gun shy from seeing a lot of shows this year at the Noel S. Ruiz, where every time they have live musicians, they seem to drown out the actors, but that didn't happen here. The band was quite good.
So it all rested on the cast. Could they pull it off?
Happily, yes! There were one or two issues, but in the end, they did a great job of creating a really fun evening of theater.
You have to start with Laura Laureano, the production's Evita. Let's face it, there's no way this show works without her. And I have to say that she won me over pretty much from the start. She's a petite young woman with a big voice. Facially, she reminded me of Jessica Parker Kennedy, the actress who plays Barry Allen's daughter in The Flash. Laureano immediately checks off that likability box, although very early on in the production, she demonstrates that she can go from doe-eyed ingenue to fierce warrior woman in ... well, a flash. She doesn't play Eva as sympathetically as Madonna did in the film -- she's pretty bitchy while she's throwing out Peron's young mistress, and she snaps a little too unnecessarily once or twice at the makeup people getting her ready for her Rainbow Tour -- but she's certainly not the total ice queen she's sometimes portrayed as either.
Laureano has everything it takes to make a first-rate Eva. My only real criticism of her is that when she goes full-out at the highest part of her range, her voice can get a little strident. But she's deadly accurate at hitting the notes, and Evita isn't the easiest part to sing.
In any event, she successfully portrays the character's effervescence and her lust for life, even if that life is regrettably short.
Her chief antagonist is Dylan Bivings as Che. Che serves as our narrator of sorts for the play, usually standing outside of the action and commenting on it. Snottily. (Does it show that I have no patience with this character?) Bivings nails the character perfectly, mocking Evita and the crowds who worship her as though she's an angel or a saint. The only problem with his performance is that while he has a good voice, on this evening, at least, he didn't completely have the vocal range for the part. He'd be fine for most of a song, but when he had to hit the highest notes, he couldn't always pull it off. Maybe he was just having an off vocal night. In any event, it was too bad, because in every other way, he embodied the character.
One of the differences between Broadway and regional theaters like the Smithtown PAC is that on Broadway, you pretty much have every musical theater actor in the world wanting to be a part of a new production, so you can usually find someone who fits every role physically as well as talent wise. This isn't always the case in regional theater, though, so sometimes a director has to choose between somebody who looks the part, and someone who can play the part.
Dennis Creighton, who plays Juan Peron in this production, looks about as Argentinian as I do. (Which is to say, not at all). In every other way, though, he successfully portrayed this character. He played probably the most sympathetic version of Peron I've ever seen, making it obvious that his relationship with Eva was not just one of convenience. (In the failed Gateway production that I spoke of earlier, Peron already had a new mistress while Eva was sick and dying). He's physically a large, strong-looking man, which helped to make it believable that he could fight his way to the top of the military (as demonstrated in the song "The Art of the Possible"). So this helped to give him permission of a sort to play a softer, more tender, Peron without coming off like a wimp. I enjoyed his performance a lot.
Anthony Arpino displayed a powerful and lovely voice as Magaldi, the singer who becomes the first in a long line of increasingly powerful men whom Eva works her through in her rise to the top. Lauren Tiradoo likewise did a good job with her one song in the role of Peron's mistress. (And while she gets quickly thrown out like yesterday's trash, at least this Eva didn't steal her song the way Madonna did in the movie).
The rest of the Ensemble cast also does an excellent job as Eva's adoring crowd, the people who love and worship her.
This is definitely a successful production of Evita, thanks in large part to the talents of its star, Ms. Laureano. If you love this show, as I do, I don't think you'll be disappointed. It runs at the Smithtown PAC (http://www.smithtownpac.org) through June 23.