When the magnificent Maggie Portman sings her famous line ‘I kept my promise, don't keep your distance' a new meaning, both figuratively and literally are given to those lyrics. In the figurative sense, Theo Ubique's Evita gives the audience a sense of fulfillment and artistry that is rarely so moving. In the literal since, considering the more than intimate space of the No Exit Café, you can't keep your distance as the performance takes place inches from the patrons, that is after most of the cast is through serving you dinner and drinks.
For those who are not familiar, Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, Argentina's controversial First Lady under Dictator Juan Peron, who rose from poverty to the height of political power, becoming a Saint to her supporters while bankrupting the country by shutting down every viable industry before her death from cancer in 1952 at the age of 33 (the same age as Jesus Christ). 1976's Evita marked the last collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, By Jeeves) and to many is considered their best work. Evita, like Superstar began as a concept album, with Julie Covington and Colm Wilkinson before being staged in London by Harold Prince, making Elaine Paige and David Essex stars. The show then opened on Broadway in September of 1979 with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin and earned each of them Tony Awards along with the show receiving Best Musical nods. After years of casting guffaws, including Olivia Newton John, Barbara Streisand, Merrill Streep and Michelle Pheiffer, Madonna finally and successfully brought Evita to film.
Evita, the first show I saw on Broadway, holds a fond place in my heart and in my collective memory, having seen the show a myriad of times since then, including every Broadway replacement Evita, Darin Altay, Loni Ackerman and Florence Lacy, as well as being involved with the First National Tour which starred Valarie Perri (who is the best Eva to ever perform the role).
Each subsequent major tour, (Perri was later succeeded by Flo Lacy) including the not very well received 20th Anniversary version with Natalie Toro, has stayed true to Harold Prince's superb Brechtian vision. Aside from smaller professional and community theatres having their go at the show, it wasn't until the 2006 London revival that a new vision of the show was introduced under the direction of Michael Grandage who made the experience more visual than virtual. This reworking, though critically well received did not garner much public affection. However, the revival did make a star out of Elena Roger, whose Argentinean roots gave her performance much heart and soul.
What makes director Fred Anzevino's current production a hit is his intense passion and knowledge of the show's intent and subject matter. Anzevino strips away any preconceptions you have of the characters and allows his actors to retell the story their way, while keeping a tight reign on the historical truths. This is not an easy task given the space confines of No Exit Café and the musical itself, which ultimately allows the audience to decide if Evita was a saint or sinner. To this end, Anzevino has put together a remarkable creative team and cast, first and foremost with his choice of choreographer, Brenda Didier. With any of these modern day operas, the line is blurred between direction and dance, each relying equally on the other to move the story along. Many a production fail because the trust factor between the two did not work. Here, Anzevino and Didier work beautifully together and their accomplishments can be seen more fully in numbers such as ‘Buenos Aires and ‘The Waltz for Eva & Che' where acting melds beautifully with the dancing.
One problem area lies with musical director Ryan Brewster's since of timing on several of the numbers. Certain songs are under tempo from what the score calls for, (‘I Want To Be A Part of B.A.') while others are speeding along with the actors trying to catch up (‘Peron's Latest Flame'). Even though there are only three people in the band, a separate conductor would serve both musicians and actors well.
It is the cast though, who truly drives this Evita home. Chris Damiano presents Che as a revolutionary who cares more for country then himself. Even though disconnected from the story, serving more as an Everyman then a character, Damiano's beautiful and robust tenor voice inject his emotions into every song and gives a very human prospective on the dictatorship that ravished the country. Damiano also gets to show off his guitar playing abilities, which is a much needed addition to the otherwise bland musical arrangements. Jeremy Trager, (one of the best Emcee's to play the role in Cabaret) though having a youthful appearance, gives a very layered and mature performance to Juan Peron, especially in ‘She's A Diamond' where he defends his wife's popularity to the military while coming to the realization of a life soon to be lived without Eva's companionship or power. Booming baritone Michael Wheelwright's Magaldi is saucy and sleazy while Jenny Lamb sings ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall' better then any Mistress on or off Broadway.
Then there is Maggie Portman who has hit a new career high with her portrayal as Eva. Gritty and vulnerable, Portman reinvents the role and makes it her own. From her teen years in Junin to her deathbed‘Lament', Portman's instant stage presence transports the audience into Evita's world and takes us on an emotional roller coaster. Vocally, Portman knows how to shape a song to fit her range. Where some actresses are able to belt high E's and F's (Rainbow High and A New Argentina), Portman finesses the notes with her head voice, but still garnering the same emotional impact of the more fully powered chest belters (LuPone, Paige). Her rendition of ‘Don't Cry For Me Argentina' (originally titled ‘Its Only Your Lover Returning') is a work of perfection and her deathbed ‘Lament' is chilling. Ms. Portman has always made great career choices, taking a gamble on leaving Porchlight's Nine to go into Shout at the Drury Lane Theatre ended up being a smart move, and now with Evita, there is no end to what she can accomplish.
I have heard it said recently that so called ‘diva' actresses overshadow the musicality of Evita, no doubt referring to LuPone and Paige. I must disagree whole heartedly with such analysis. In fact the opposite is true. Evita made stage stars out of Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige and more recently Elena Roger. They were all unknowns when they tackled this role and it is the musical which catapulted their careers not the other way around. Now I think we can safely add Ms. Portman to this well deserved list of ‘divas'!
Evita runs through April 19, 2009 at The No Exit Café, 6970 Glenwood, Chicago, Illinois. For more information, including show times and tickets please visit www.theoubique.org or call 773.347.1109.