The Legend Marches On
Assuming the role of a woman who allegedly inspired 40,000 people to petition the Vatican for her canonization is no easy task.
Trying to emulate the qualities that made Eva Pern an Argentine icon namely sex appeal and dogged determination is even more difficult while belting out thirteen choreographed show tunes, donning four different wigs, and changing costumes fourteen times in the process.
Nevertheless, in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts' new production of Evita, Sarah Litzsinger's portrayal of the dictator's wife though lyrically scorching falls short of resonating the magnetic charisma and bewitching allure necessary to bring the larger-than-life legend alive.
Launching what's billed as the Broadway in Fort Lauderdale season, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's seven-time Tony-winning pop opera traces Perón's bizarre and controversial life, from her illegitimate birth into poverty, to her glory days as one of Latin America's most important females, to her untimely death in 1952 at 33 years of age.
Overseen by many of those involved with the 1979 New York premiere including Harold Prince and Larry Fuller, the show's original Broadway director and choreographer, respectively this production is a visually stunning and faithful adaptation of the revered version that engulfed the young woman's once-saintly image in shadow by painting her as a selfish fraud who stole from public funds and suppressed free speech. Although Lloyd Webber and Rice do indeed cast a veil of doubt over the former actress's moral and ethical values, they still fail to convince the audience that the former first lady did not earnestly love her country and its people.
In the almost quarter-century since its 1978 West End debut, this hauntingly controversial story of power, glamour, and greed has been performed in 28 countries and fourteen languages, during which time the girl who grew up in the Buenos Aires province of Los Toldos has amassed more than 30 biographies not all of which are admirable. Mary Main's Evita: The Woman with the Whip the version that provided fodder for the musical implies the would-be saint worked as a prostitute or career mistress of powerful men, and if you buy into the stage show version of events, the self-invented star was certainly a pro at playing the old holy-whore duality-of-woman game: "A cross between a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint," they sing.
The plot of Evita largely plays on the sinner-saint dichotomy. To enchant an audience as its creators surely intended, it is imperative the star not only project the kind of bombastic voice the score demands, but also an intense sexuality. Madonna stole unceremonious applause for her performance in the title role of Alan Parker's 1996 film version; dubbing her singing dubious at best and scarcely commending her acting abilities, critics attributed the pop star's success to her mesmerizing onscreen presence, one that helped her transcend the role of iron slut to vulnerable yet cunning political powerhouse. Whereas Litzsinger's vocal talents rival the finest of those who have assumed the challenging role, her stiff, girl-next-door personification of a woman alleged to be a cold-hearted vixen makes her a disappointing lead and as likely to boast a string of drooling gentlemen callers as Janet Reno.
It's clear who the star of the show is from the instant the curtain rises. In his funny, heartfelt, and invigorating portrayal of Che Guevara, KeithByron Kirk is the not-so-timid observer who anchors the talented cast of 34, as well as the young student whose impassioned voice narrates the two-hour show. Although there is no evidence to suggest Che ever met Eva Perón, he was strongly opposed to the Perón regime during Eva's lifetime, and in any one of his brilliantly acted, bitterly sarcastic outbursts, Kirk is every bit the explosive and angry revolutionary. He brings charismatic humor to the role, stealing the spotlight whenever he enters into view.
Che is also used as a device to place the Peróns in situations where they can be easily criticized. One example of this directorial brilliance is during the song "The Art of the Possible," in which a game of musical chairs is used to represent the power struggle and eventual rise of Juan Domingo Perón in the Argentine military the womanizing strongman convincingly played by Philip Hernandez in a well-rounded, solid performance. More great staging occurs during Act One's "Goodnight and Thank You." This tongue-in-cheek depiction of Evita's rise to stardom via a string of well-connected lovers uses a revolving door that spits one man out as it welcomes another suitor in.
The flurry of ballads, waltzes, tangos, and melodies forms an entertaining and epic account of one woman's life that culminates where the play begins, with Evita's death. Despite evidence of corruption, los descamisados (literally, the shirtless ones), who formed the base of her unprecedented political power, reportedly fell into a period of unparalleled mourning and eight people were crushed to death by the hysterical throngs desperate to catch a final glimpse of their beloved spiritual leader as she lay in her coffin. Many Argentines credit the wife of the post-World War II leader for the female right to vote and for aiding the plight of the poor. For others the truth remains murky, but more than 50 years after her death, Eva Perón still basks in the glow of her mythical legend, and the soundtrack so many have come to associate with her life story still resounds as strongly as ever.
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