Chicago Theatre Review
High Flying Adored
Evita – Marriott Theatre
“Any opera that begins with a funeral can’t be all bad.” That was Harold Prince’s initial response when he was approached to direct the original London and Broadway productions. The show actually began life as a popular, best-selling concept album. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved multi award-winning biographic musical, depicting the rags to riches, overnight rise to fame of Eva Peron, the controversial First Lady of Argentina, is now an exquisite, first rate production up in Lincolnshire. The first British musical to win a Tony Award for Best Musical has since enjoyed countless regional, national and international productions, including a 2012 Broadway revival that starred Ricky Martin. Marriott’s production, however, is far more intimate and, as a result, even more powerful, beautiful and thought-provoking.
“Evita” is the story of one woman’s unquenchable thirst for popularity, power and prominence, with a taste for life’s finer things, thrown in for good measure. Eva (according to various sources) soon learned that she could use her beauty and feminine wiles to help her climb up the social ladder to fame and fortune. After taking up with a married, semi-successful singer named Magaldi, Eva leaves her small hometown and follows him to Buenos Aires. There she begins sleeping her way to the top when, after achieving fame as a radio and film actress, Eva meets and falls in love with Colonel Juan Peron, who is on the brink of political success. They recognize their similarities, quickly marry (much to the chagrin of the Colonel’s advisors) and Peron is soon elected President. Eva’s critics continue to advise Peron against involving her in politics. But her popularity with Argentina’s common workers continues to grow, almost elevating Eva to sainthood. But, just as Eva’s thirst for power continues to drive her even further, she suddenly turns seriously ill and eventually dies, leaving Peron and her people devastated.
This pop opera, filled with some of Webber’s finest and best-loved music, begins with Eva Peron’s funeral (“Requiem”) in 1952 and then circles back to 1934, portraying a precocious 15-year-old Eva Duarte discovering the hold she has over men (“Buenos Aires”). Her journey is narrated by and commented upon by a fictional commoner named Che. Mandy Patinkin created this role on Broadway and, if familiar with the score, it’s almost impossible to rid your memory of his distinctive vocal portrayal.
However, Austin Lesch, who’s been seen recently on Broadway in “Something Rotten” and “Violet,” is a dynamic Che in Lincolnshire. The gifted young actor is one of the strongest reasons to see this new Chicagoland production. His vocal range is astonishing: From his deep, well-supported bass notes to a sweetly-produced falsetto that’s both solid and clear, Mr. Lesch has the handsome looks, the gentle ease and the strong voice to claim this role as his own. Seldom leaving the stage, Che is not only the show’s narrator, but also a Greek chorus and a primary participant and instigator of the action. As a result, some of the loudest applause at the curtain call was for this talented young star-on-the-rise.
The next best reason for seeing this production is the terrific singing/dancing ensemble who all play multiple roles, from the British elite to the Argentine commoners and military. Alex Sanchez’s exciting direction and pulsating choreography, which offers creative variations on the Argentine tango, among other dance styles, is superb; the manner in which this cast executes his work is nothing less than outstanding.
But the most compelling reason for seeing this show are the two actresses who share the role of Evita. Hannah Corneau is a beautiful Eva Peron who easily belts out Webber’s demanding score with precision and passion. That she’s also an accomplished dancer, allows Ms. Corneau to stand out front rather than fade into the background during the many intricately choreographed production numbers. She’s simply magnificent, as is lovely Samatha Pauly, who plays this difficult role at certain alternate performances.
David Schlumpf is excellent as Magaldi and, besides his luminous tenor, which sends his songs spiraling to the last row, he lends his talents to the show’s choreographic demands, as well. Larry Adams is pure perfection as Juan Peron, the military political leader who rises to become the President of his Argentina. He plays Peron with an intense authority, gorgeous vocal power and ultimately a sad weariness as the end nears, a performance that feels honest and natural.
Director Alex Sanchez has also mined a few humorous moments to counter the intense drama and sadness of this story. Because of Thomas M. Ryan’s elegant, simple set design, primarily comprised of movable shutters suspended from above, Jesse Klug’s moody illumination and the many lovely, elegant period costumes, designed by the talented Nancy Missimi, this production is a visual masterpiece.
Yet this show is truly all about its gorgeous score. It’s musically directed here by the talented Ryan T. Nelson. These beautiful songs, interpreted with clarity and finesse by a stellar cast, would make Webber and his lyricist Tim Rice proud. The sound and passion of this score cannot be matched. With haunting songs like “Oh, What a Circus,” “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” “Rainbow High,” “You Must Love Me,” “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” (nicely sung by Eliza Palasz as the young Mistress), “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” and, of course, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” this production is in every way a breathtaking, impressive “High Flying Adored.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 13-June 5 by the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Additional information about this and other area shows may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.