“Evita,” the musical about the rise and fall of Argentina’s most beloved (and controversial) First Lady has opened at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater. Although more than 60 years have passed since her demise, the legend and mystique of Eva Perón lingers on. Was the woman affectionately referred to as Evita truly a saintly champion of the masses– or a savvy manipulator whose actions were fueled by greed and ambition? The truth lies somewhere in-between. In the hands of Director Igor Goldin and an exemplary cast, this historical saga revisited in song featuring lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is a powerhouse of a production. It draws you in, enthralls and leaves you wanting more. You’ll find yourself humming one of the show-stopping songs, and seeking additional information about the woman who rose from the slums of Argentina to reign as the country’s spiritual leader and spokesperson for the President. Prepare for a magical night.
Eva Perón was one of five illegitimate children born to a wealthy rancher in a country that stigmatized such offspring. Juan Duarte abandoned his brood, plunging the family into dire poverty. Yet Eva refused to let her circumstances extinguish her hopes, and relentlessly pursued her dream to escape to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s Big Apple. Eva became an actress, and serendipitously met Colonel Juan Perón at a charity benefit for San Juan earthquake victims. This fortuitous meeting would set the stage for Juan’s presidency.
Sadly, for Eva Perón, her Cinderella story would be short-lived. The show opens with “Requiem,” a solemn ode to the First Lady whose death from cancer at age 33 brought Argentina to its knees.
The musical numbers which follow fill in the details of Eva Perón’s rags to riches story. Che (Aaron C. Finely) who espouses a critical view of Eva’s escapades, straddles the fourth wall, serving as the narrator/commentator while also joining in on the action.
The songs “Eva, Beware of the City” sung by Magaldi (Ruben Flores) and “Buenos Aires,” resonate with the desire of young Eva (Janine Divita), then a brunette, to escape to the town considered the ‘Paris’ of Argentina.
In her quest to rise to lofty heights, Eva became a blonde who was not above using her feminine wiles to obtain favors from prominent men.
Particularly entertaining and humorous is “Goodnight and Thank You,” in which Eva beds and discards a series of lovers while the sardonic Che looks on with disgust and comments accordingly.
Interestingly enough, the woman who seemed to have a hard time saying no took a different tactic when she ran into Colonel Perón (Bruce Winant).
“I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” Eva sings to Colonel Perón , and she turns out to be right. She hastily dispatches Juan’s young mistress, played by Ashley Perez Flanagan, the daughter of Senator John Flanagan. This mistress is no hard-shelled Eva Perón, and the young woman, who has been abruptly kicked to the curb, sees that she is becoming more vulnerable as each “love” affair draws to an end. Her stunningly heartbreaking and poignant “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is a true delight that showcases Ms. Perez Flanagan’s considerable gift for acting and song.
Perhaps the pinnacle of the show occurs when Juan Perón wins the presidency and Eva, dressed to the nines in a shimmering sequined white dress, addresses the crowd assembled below the balcony of the Casa Rosada. We catch a glimpse of the perfectly coiffed golden-haired beauty as she strides by a translucent rounded top window. It is a magical prelude to Eva’s glorious rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
As part of the quest of the Peróns to orchestrate a “New Argentina,” Eva establishes her charitable foundation. The highly engaging song, “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” suggests that some of the funds destined for the poverty-stricken might have been used to feather the Peróns’ own financial nest.
Evita is a winning production which runs the gamut from the humorous to the profoundly sad. Kudos to Michael Cassara for the casting. Janine Divita excels as Evita and Bruce Winant is a true talent who compliments her perfectly and as was pointed out to me, actually resembles Juan Perón. Aaron C. Finley adds just the right amount of spice as Che.
The dance moves (and there’s some dirty dancing) are beautifully choreographed by Antoinette DiPietropolo. The show is all about the music and once again, the band led by James Olmstead, whose work I have admired in the past, delivers the goods and then some.
With lighting by Zach Blane, Daniel Willis’ set takes on the humble aura of a tango café one moment and is palatial the next.
“Evita” runs through November 2. The Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport Village. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, by calling (631) 261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com.