‘Evita’: A riveting, rousing success for Riverside

With its triumphant production of “Evita,” Riverside Theatre once again demonstrates it has the capacity to go toe-to-toe with the big boys of Broadway.

Indeed, with Tony Award-nominee director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge at the helm, this show brims with exhilarating, inventive and downright satisfying musical moments.

Moreover, with her exceptional cast, Dodge finds the sensual, provocative and sobering center to this 40-year-old musical and delivers something fresh: a human look at the notorious Eva Peron and the oppressive world she navigated.

Dodge shows how Eva, maligned by society, uses her only commodity to sleep her way from the lower class to the top of power and marriage to Argentine military strong man Juan Peron. Beloved by the working class, who lovingly call her “Evita,” she helps form the dictator’s base of support and his rise to political power.

The winner of seven Tony Awards, “Evita” is an epic story told with grand, theatrical gesture. Created by the legendary team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, its score and lyrics make for a powerful musical/rock-opera blend. And Riverside’s music director, Ann Shuttlesworth, meets every big sound with a muscle and fury that belies the fact there are but 11 pieces in the pit orchestra.

The show’s beginning lures the audience to step back in time. With the audience lights still on, a man enters, sits at the lone table and turns on the radio. Dancers individually amble onto stage and start stretching and warming up, as if townspeople getting ready for an evening in a tango hall. An announcement comes on the radio, lights are dimmed and the story begins.

Eva Peron has died and the townspeople weep and mourn through dance. They converge and then part, revealing as if by once-upon-a-time magic Evita, in that exquisite white, Christian Dior gown, revered as a goddess by the working class. She holds perfectly still, as if lying in state.

Lights shift, scenic units fly up and we go back in time to when Eva was an impoverished little girl. She attempts to give an important man a bouquet and he spurns her, perhaps sowing the seeds of her unquenchable thirst for acceptance and love. That little girl appears a few times throughout Riverside’s production, reminding us of the early emotional trauma.

With a thorough sweep of emotion and impressive voice, Natalie Cortez forges a sensuous and commanding portrayal of Eva. She electrifies the stage – both with such beautiful, melodic songs as the magnificent “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” which has that delicious slow tango refrain; and with “A New Argentina,” one of the bolder pieces rife with Rice’s tricky, heady lyrics and Webber’s forays into jarring musical passages designed to rip through polite society’s status quo.

Just as the show explores the jolt of social change, so too will traditionalists notice something fresh in a few directorial concepts here.

Traditionally, the role of “Che” is presented as that of Che Guevara, the Cuban communist fighter who befriended Juan Peron. However here, Dodge turns Che into a youthful reporter, always with a pencil and notebook, recording the truth for “La Prensa,” a highly popular newspaper eventually seized and silenced by the Peronistas. In the Che role, Angel Lozada brings lyrical voice and precision throughout, especially in “High Flying Adored” and in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” which he sings with sweet-voiced Iliana Garcia.

Another change comes in “The Art of the Possible,” which introduces Juan Peron. Traditionally, this is done as a game of musical chairs. Here, though, Dodge dresses the generals in muscle shirts and large drums, which they roughly play. This raw, tribal concept rips off social niceties of the game and reveals the frightening power wielded by would-be dictators.

And as Juan Peron, Enrique Acevedo has strength and delivers vocally. While we don’t see much heat between him and Eva, we do see how well matched they are in their quest for power; especially in the number “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.”

One of the standout numbers in the show is “Peron’s Latest Flame,” in which two social groups – the haughty aristocracy and the rough-hewn military – display their disdain for Evita in a kind of pas de deux between the classes. Here, Dodge accentuates almost every musical nuance with sly, understated adjustments of canes, umbrellas and even physical stances.

Dodge, who was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway revival of “Ragtime,” squeezes out every ounce of energy from her capable ensemble in “And the Money Kept Rolling In.” Unlike the somber moves of the opening, here the public, led in song by Lozada’s Che, exult over what they reap by Peron’s heedless economic policy. They leap repeatedly into the air and slap the floor with their feet and rejoice with abandon.

Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s beautifully crafted unit set easily becomes multiple locations and elegantly supports the action and the ensemble. Lighting designer Yael Lubetzky carves mood and time into the scenes. Both theater artists work in harmony to hold the audience in the overall visual aesthetic throughout.

Costume designer Richard St. Clair goes the complete distance and then some in a smart, artistic and beautiful array of costumes. His artistic touches are exquisite, from the earthy colors of working-class poor to the upper classes’ palette evocative of cream that rises to the top. Especially nice is Eva’s blue and white dress with yellow-accented sunburst and petticoat – evocative of the Argentine flag.

Another sweet touch is the addition of a lone accordion player, Erica Mancini, who turns up occasionally.

This is sensational theater. Forty years ago, Webber and Rice crafted a wonderful, big show. Riverside Theatre and its theater artists have stepped up big time, creating a visually beautiful show designed to excite and satisfy immensely and reminding us how great “Evita” is. Simply do not miss this.

“Evita” runs through Jan. 27 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Wednesdays, select Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets begin at $35. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.

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