Four years have passed since the last collaboration between the San Diego Repertory Theatre and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. Previous stagings of Hairspray, The Who’s Tommy and In the Heights were met with positive reviews from critics and audiences.
Co-founder/Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse, picked another Tony-award winning musical for the latest San Diego Rep/SCPA team up, Evita. Still a popular show both in America and the U.K., major productions received mixed reviews in the U.S. since opening on Broadway in 1979.
Certain reviewers at the time felt that in spite of the fantastic singing from Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics didn’t offer factual insight into the legacy of Eva Peron. While Woodhouse’s staging might not affect people’s opinions about the script, even the most jaded musical fans will be wowed by the talent involved in the intimate interpretation.
As a young girl in 1930’s Argentina (Sean Fanning’s set and Blake McCarty’s projections authentically represent the decade), Eva (Marisa Matthews), decides to leave her lower class existence for a better life in Buenos Aires. She moves up in the world by associating with financially wealthy suitors.
This determined status seeker finds her ticket on meeting the presidential candidate, Juan Peron (Jason Maddy) and they soon get married. He becomes the leader of Argentina, via the military junta, and helped by Eva’s actions. Through her passion and sympathy for the poor, Eva turns into a beloved and controversial celebrity.
There are a lot of different factors at the Lycuem Theatre that allow the 145-minute running time to go by in a flash. No one is more responsible for this than Woodhouse, who brings a sense of scope during big ensemble numbers like “Requiem,” “A New Argentina” and “Peron’s Latest Flame.” Well-integrated homages to Hal Prince’s original direction are also featured, especially as Juan and officers sing about “The Art of the Possible” when playing a fateful game of musical chairs.
Javier Velasco’s musical staging and Andrew Bearden’s musical direction add to the sound and visuals of the presentation. Because of their contributions, Webber’s vocally demanding score is never simplified.
Matthews over-emotes early on in expressing Eva’s frustrations in her younger years. By the time she belts out “Buenos Aires,” she wins over theatregoers with her self assured attitude and charming confidence.
Equally fascinating to watch is Che (Jeffrey Ricca), the narrator who represents the people of Argentina. Che is appalled by Eva’s actions as she grows in popularity.
Ricca’s vocal range is displayed with dissatisfied anger in “Oh What a Circus,” and his voice only becomes more expressive in various sequences.
Finding a tricky balance between menacing and compassionate is Maddy’s portrayal of Juan. Maddy’s body language can be intimidating, yet he displays a lot of sensitivity whenever he’s around Matthews.
Not a lot of other roles besides the three leads get significant solo time in Evita. However, SCPA student, Mikaela Celeste, is a rare exception as Juan’s mistress. Her empathetic handling of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” brings depth to a minor character.
Contributions from adult performers and other SCPA students and staff are integrated smoothly in the evening. Younger ensemble members and musicians, conducted by Lisa LeMay, are the glue to the majority of the songs, particularly several tunes in Act II.
In a normal production of Evita, “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” would be the big showstopper of the evening. Surprisingly, Woodhouse and Matthews don’t treat it that way, even though variations of the melody are used in both acts. Webber and Rice’s beloved song is underplayed, which makes it an emotionally impactful tune.
What ends up being the biggest applause worthy number is “And the Money Kept Rolling In” sung by Ricca and the chorus. Comically commenting on Eva’s questionable financial decisions, the song is as biting as it is catchy.
Like other recent revivals of older works, it’s hard not to think of reality when watching Evita. Corrupt politics, cynicism and totalitarianism are all referenced in Rice’s writing. Finding parallels to 2017 enhances the performance.
Even if you’ve never warmed up to Evita, you’ll likely be swept away by Woodhouse’s take on the theatrical hit. It’s a night that works on a visceral and emotional level.