There is no mystic awe; no beloveds, and no Eva Peróns in our world anymore. For better or worse, we obsess over counterculture and countering the norm, and resistance does not allow the cult of personality to arise as it has in the past. TAPS’ production of Evita speaks to an experience we culturally lack but that, in some ways, might be in need of. Eva Perón was the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952, until she died at 33. She was ambitious, strong, criticized, hated by many, beloved by many, and according to this production, misremembered.
Evita opens with the death of Eva and the obsessive grief that consequently rocked Argentina. The show begins with Eva’s very traditional, South American Catholic Mass funeral. We join the mourners in a time when mourning becomes a way of life. After the death of a loved one and black veils diffused class lines, at least while at church. The musical’s narrator Che (Matthew Billman, ‘15) quickly breaks the spell set by candles and tears as he reminds the audience of the impoverished state of Argentina in the 1940s and the havoc that Perónist politics, in their populist manipulation of the lower classes, had been blamed for, especially thanks to Eva.
Che operates on a different plane from the rest of the story, which follows the life of Eva (Amy DuBose, ‘15) as she escapes extreme poverty by moving to Buenos Aires at 15 and doing anything and everything she can to become a successful actress, until she meets Colonel Perón (played operatically by Ian Anstee, ’18.) As the historically inaccurate plot of the story unfolds, Che comments from the exterior with the smiling cynicism emblematic of his young revolutionary spirit. As Billman slow claps at Eva’s calculated, ambitious power plays and coyly raises his eyebrows at the hypocrisies in Perón’s politics, he endears himself to the audience. We want him to continue smiling and striding into Eva’s increasingly glamorous life, calling her out with what is perhaps the most beautiful voice on Stanford’s campus.
But a brilliant directorial decision prevents Che from completely stealing the audience’s hearts away from Eva. Director Sammi Cannold (‘15) and dramaturg Greg O’Rourke (‘16) have added a character who consistently operates in Che’s spiritual and historiographic world of existence. She lingers before Eva’s coffin, she counters Che’s sarcastic attacks, and she sways with the grace of a queen and the glamour of a movie star. She is Santa Eva (Mady Weiss, ‘18.) Weiss’ presence, poise, and deeply emotional reactions to the story are a highlight of the production and make the audience think more deeply about the historical figure to which her character responds. It is only when Weiss and Billman tango together in the second act that the over a foot height difference between them becomes noticeable; the two are such powerful presences that even in their many moments of communicating with only eye contact. Together with the talented Cayla Pettinato, who plays Perón’s nameless Mistress, they steal the show.
In Argentina and around the world, the life, death, and legacy of Eva Perón has become a myth. The character, as written in the musical, makes her an contemptible myth — a myth that destroyed her own people because of her ambition. But by mythologizing her into the overseeing, spiritual being of Santa Eva, Cannold has made the real Eva more nuanced. DuBose’s portrayal of Eva is sweeter than the script would have you believe the woman was, but the contrast between her interpretation and the content of the story is brought together by DuBose’s devotion to playing Eva as, above everything else, strong. Her best acting shines when Eva must, under political pressure and because of her terminal cancer, reject the Argentinian people’s calls for her to run for Vice President. Physically and emotionally weak, Eva breaks down during “Eva’s Final Broadcast” that brought tears to my eyes (though this could also be due to DuBose’s rich, beautiful singing success in one of the most difficult female vocal roles — a role reportedly written by a man who hates women.) The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice lays the ladder for the myth of Eva Perón to climb. But as Che sings in “High Flying Adored,” “Don’t look down, it’s a long, long way to fall” — Eva Perón cannot remain at the top—for the first time, she is not strong.
No myth can be immortalized without the spectators and worshippers that attend the rallies and erect the statues. Evita’s ensemble tangos between the kerchief-clad descamisados of the struggling workers, the middle class, the elite, the various nurses and shopping assistants and military officers that sweep into the Peróns’ lives, grazing their Dior exteriors without ever entering their world. The ensemble also functions as the tech crew, switching the set from the seedy streets of Buenos Aires to the majestic steps of the Casa Rosada as they themselves switch into different subsets of the Argentinian people. An enormous arched wall overwhelms the stage. When its six windows are closed, a portrait of Eva becomes visible. But they usually remain open, and set pieces appear that range from the portraits of military officers (right before Perón’s rise to power), posters advertising the bars and clubs Eva performed at during her days as an actress, portraits of the most powerful and controversial women in history (Marie Antoinette looks on as Eva sits at her dressing table), and the flags of countries that Eva visits on her infamous Rainbow Tour of Europe. This practical but powerful set design allows beautiful period furniture pieces and a stunning array of costumes to shine in the forefront of the stage.
Evita could have more unity in the ensemble singing, more smoothness in the men’s dancing, and more drama in the Peróns’ iconic relationship, but it succeeds at humanizing a legend in a way that retains the legendary nature of her humanity. Eva Perón instilled an awe and dedication in her people that, regardless of her polarizing legacy, no individuals, let alone politicians, bring out in the masses today. If not for the aesthetics, vocal powerhouses, and the magnetism of Billman and Weiss, see Evita to experience this collective, magical awe. Eva Perón was a religion without a god, a queen without a crown, and beloved without universal love. Theatre may be the only remaining way to lose yourself to a myth, and Evita is a myth worth the loss.
Photo credits: Frank Chen
Evita. Memorial Auditorium. May 28-30. 8 p.m. Tickets here.