Review | Stand back, Washington. ‘Evita’ has never been more thrilling.


It’s a bloomin’ stunner: Rows of flower boxes strewn with white flora and adorned with flickering candles rise up on the Harman Hall stage like a garden stairway to heaven. Amid the white roses and camellias, in the iconic strapless ballgown — white, too — Shereen Pimentel materializes as Eva “Evita” Perón, crooning that elegiac ballad of self-beatification, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”

The number near the top of Act 2 in director Sammi Cannold’s gorgeously reinvigorated “Evita” is guaranteed to provoke goose bumps. Because Cannold and designers Jason Sherwood (sets), Bradley King (lights), Alejo Vietti (costumes) and Connor Wang (sound) devise a revelatory setting for one of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s most sumptuous songs. Add the luscious voice and presence of Pimentel, and the ingredients of an unforgettable musical-theater moment are stirred.

The production, minted at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and transplanted now to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s flagship space, makes a persuasive case for “Evita” as the most artistically vibrant musical in the Lloyd Webber canon. (Admittedly the competition is less than fierce.) Cannold looks shrewdly into the story of Argentina’s tornadic first lady to dismantle some of the mythology. She unearths neither monster nor martyr, but rather a woman armored by misfortune who manages to find her fortune.

This Eva is the pragmatic product of privation. Her vulnerability is taken advantage of by rapacious men and her humility extinguished by power. She is a ravenous urchin schooled in cruelty, her wildest dreams realized through guts, guile, grit and a gift for survival. A measure of the production’s canniness is the suggestion, more emphatically than in prior instances, of a real marriage between Eva and President Juan Perón. He is portrayed with palpable passion by Caesar Samayoa, to whom Pimentel’s mortally ill Eva sings a wrenching “You Must Love Me,” the ballad the songwriters added for Madonna in the unfortunate 1996 movie version.

With the stylish contributions of choreographers Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff, the show moves like a dream, as the mid-century denizens of Argentina’s cosmopolitan capital — you know, “Stand back, Buenos Aires!” — dance to Eva’s irresistible tune. The tango, the country’s sensual signature, recurs as the story of Eva’s rise, from boy toy to political dynamo, unfolds. These two national symbols, one an expression of desire in movement, the other the feminine embodiment of a people’s will, imbue this “Evita” with its urgent aspirational momentum. The story, like its subject, has unstoppable energy.

“Evita” has only been revived once on Broadway since Harold Prince’s Tony-winning 1979 production, which launched into the stratosphere a young lead actress named Patti LuPone and, as a narrating Che Guevara, Mandy Patinkin. Prince took a Brechtian approach to the material that benefited immeasurably from the elemental sense of need LuPone projected.

But Cannold gives us a different perspective, reinforced in the highly fictionalized character of Che, played by the dashing Omar Lopez-Cepero; the director introduces a younger version of the Argentine-born revolutionary, a supposed eyewitness to the increasingly corrupt Peronist phenomenon. The conceit allows the director to integrate the sung-through musical’s political themes more robustly into the glamorous melodrama of Eva’s life and early death, at 33, from cancer.

A certain reductive quality is inevitable in the theatrical framing of a political biography; another autocratic fashion plate of the 20th century, Imelda Marcos, is center stage in the current Broadway musical “Here Lies Love,” a show that is even thinner in psychological detail than “Evita.” Contemporary audiences, though, seem enthralled by the vicissitudes of women, especially scheming ones, at the right hand of authority. (See also: “Six.”) So maybe the time is ripe for “Evita” to get another crack at Broadway.

The production in Harman Hall has the arresting bona fides for such a gambit. Under a quintet of movable arches, outlined in neon, the ensemble strikes adoring poses — one aspect “Evita” does stint on is delving into why the populace embraced Eva so ardently. You get only a fleeting idea of the turbulent conditions that fostered the Eva worship, although the Act 1 finale, “A New Argentina,” exuberantly bottles the desperation of the proletariat to invest in a savior. And in the wit of “The Art of the Possible,” the choreographers reveal the military elite’s stranglehold on power, through a game of musical chairs.

Competing with Eva’s “little touch of star quality,” though, the generals are faceless also-rans. Costume designer Vietti draws a chromatic distinction between Eva and everyone else (even the pope!): Emulating designers’ silhouettes of the past, he dresses Pimentel in a succession of outfits in angelic white, while the ordinary folk, the soldiers, the foreign luminaries all wear shades of gray. If clothes are supposed to make the man, in “Evita,” they sanctify the woman. That the show begins with the disembodied ballgown suspended in midair compels us to consider the question: What empty values did Eva enshrine?

Through Pimentel, Cannold communicates the thematic essence of her production. The actress takes us empathetically, step by step, from innocence to ruthlessness. The tirelessness of Eva’s campaign for love and riches seems to destroy her; the breakdown of her body feels like an inevitable result of her overarching ambition. And in a town where craven grasps for power are part of the daily routine, Eva and her musical are right at home.

Evita, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Choreography, Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff; set, Jason Sherwood; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Bradley King; sound, Connor Wang; orchestrations, David Cullen and Lloyd Webber; music direction, Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh. With Gabriel Burrafato, Naomi Serrano. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 15 at Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW.


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