Berto Fernandez and Ariella Kvashny in "Evita," Karli Cadel Photography
Like its predecessor “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita” was conceived as a rock musical and was released as a record album before ever being produced in a theater. While a strong case can be made that “JCS” is a rock ‘n’ roller, the ballad- and showtune-heavy “Evita” never felt like one. But these two have something inarguably in common: Both were smash hits on Broadway and have enjoyed productions around the world ever since their New York debuts (“Superstar” in 1971, “Evita” in 1979).
Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray told the opening night audience Saturday that he’d wanted to do “Evita” since 1978. That was the year of its West End debut. Murray’s dream has been realized: “Evita,” under his direction, is onstage in Old Town. With stout musical direction by Patrick Marion and brilliant choreography by Carlos Mendoza, Murray’s is an “Evita” to be proud of.
This production is not without a defect. The acoustic compatibility between the backstage band and the singing cast wavers. It’s often difficult to understand what the show’s narrator, the Argentine everyman Che (A.J. Mendoza) is saying in song. Likewise the star, the luminous Ariella Kvashny, whose lyrics are mostly lost when she sings in a higher register.
As for Lloyd Webber and Rice’s show itself, it’s true that “Evita” hinges principally on one song – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and its reprises – and as a nearly sung-through musical it can have a stagey, operatic feel. But at Cygnet this a dynamic “Evita” production. The kinetic and recurrent choreography of Mendoza’s and Blake McCarty’s newsreel-like projections behind the stage ensure that there’s always someone or something moving, giving the show momentum and view points. This “Evita” never falls into a lull.
I especially admired the tango dancers under the direction of Nicole Wooding whose movement provides a poignant parallel onstage to the courtship-to-music of actress Eva Duarte and Juan Peron (the towering Berto Fernandez), soon to be president of Argentina.
Cygnet’s stage is not an expansive one, but every inch is maximized to give the musical the sort of sweeping veneer that a story about change and turmoil in Argentina in the 1940s should possess.
The first act-closing, flag-waving “A New Argentina” is as rousing as the “Evita” I saw back in 1980 at the Shubert Theatre in Century City on its first national tour.
Any discussion of an “Evita” production, however, should rightly begin and end with the artist in the lead role. As Kvashny told me in a recent interview I did with her for The San Diego Union-Tribune, this part Is the biggest she’s ever had in her still young career.
And she nails it. In spite of the acoustic issues, she demonstrates her formidable vocal range and, wonderfully costumed (as is the cast as a whole) by Zoe Trautmann, Kvashny is a charismatic Eva who goes from good-time-girl to the most influential woman in the country in a stunningly short amount of time. Kvashny makes this transition credibly and her stage presence – the fuel of Eva Peron’s rise to prominence – is redoubtable.
Fernandez’s is the show’s booming voice, yet he brings appropriate sensitivity to the Peron who in the end must watch his beloved partner physically deteriorating.
Truth be told, I’ve never liked the Che device in “Evita.” (He’s not revolutionary Che Guevara, by the way.) It seems like a narrative contrivance, telling us throughout what we should already be thinking about this extraordinary woman who was saint to some, opportunist or hypocrite to others. This is not a criticism of actor A.J. Mendoza at all. He swaggers and comments just as the script prescribes.
This show’s crowd-pleasing character is Magaldi, the showman who is also Eva’s first lover and who brings her to Buenos Aires. The animated Matthew Malecki Martinez does not disappoint in the role.
“Evita” is bookended by the death of a woman who notably said “My biggest fear in life is to be forgotten.”
Fear not, Eva.
“Evita” runs through Oct. 1 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.