In transforming Evita from a Broadway scale musical to an intimate theater “chamber” piece, The Chance Theater has undertaken its biggest challenge yet. Unlike The Last Five Years and Closer Than Ever, which were chamber musicals to begin with, or Into The Woods and Assassins, which have become intimate theater staples, Evita started off huge and usually remains a big cast/big orchestra item at regional CLOs.

The original Broadway production of Evita featured a cast of 46 (the mind boggles!) and when Madonna recorded “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” for the film version, she was backed by an 84-piece orchestra. Compare this with a cast of 12, two keyboardists, a bass player, a drummer and a percussionist and you’ll see how much Evita has been scaled down to fit the Chance.

With talented and imaginative director Jocelyn A. Brown at the helm, and a cast led by Chance Resident Company Theater Members Erika C. Miller as Eva Peron, Michael Irish as Che, and Jonathon Lamer as Juan Peron, musical direction by Carmen Cortez Dominguez, and choreography by Kelly Todd, one thing is certain.  There is an abundance of talent at work here.

Because of all this talent, this mini-Evita mostly works.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s bio-musical of arguably the most famous woman in the history of Argentina (or of Latin America for that matter) has never seemed as personal a story as it does here.  Gone is the distance separating Eva from her people (in this case, the Chance audience).  Evita Peron is virtually within touching distance, no longer the iconic legend but a real flesh and blood human being, and never more so that when, only inches away from us, she first feels the stabbing pain of the cancer that was to lead to her death at 33.

Director Brown’s creative touch is evident from the very first moments, when we see a weak, wheelchair-bound Eva Peron, her head scarved, surrounded by the people of her Argentina singing their “Requiem For Evita.” Soon, young Eva Duarte emerges, her long brunet hair not yet bleached, and we meet the upwardly mobile beauty as she begins her climb to fame and fortune “On This Night Of A Thousand Stars,” serenaded by Agustin Magaldi.  It’s not long before Eva heads for “Buenos Aires,” Argentina’s “big apple,” surrounded by choreographer Todd’s hand clapping, foot stomping eight-member ensemble.

There is ample fun and irony in “Goodnight And Thank You,” as Che (the one-man Greek chorus) bids goodbye to Magaldi and three other no longer useful suitors. Brown and Todd have imaginatively staged “The Art Of The Possible” as a sequence of wrestling matches among military officers in which Juan Peron emerges the ultimate victor. Todd’s dancers tango as Eva and Juan declare to each other that “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You,” with Che perpetually on the sidelines observing. Peron’s previous mistress sings “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” before being summarily ejected from the picture by Eva, “Peron’s Latest Flame,” amusingly sung by stalwart military men on one side of the stage and snooty society ladies on the other.  Act 1 concludes with a stirring rendition of “A New Argentina.”

More fine moments occur in the second act, beginning with Miller’s beautifully acted “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” Evita downstage while her adoring people stand upstage looking up at her in near ecstasy.  There’s the lovely melody of “High Flying, Adored,” and a svelte and sexy Miller being gowned for her European “Rainbow Tour.” Later, Eva and Che touch for the first time as they “Waltz For Eva And Che”… and all too soon Eva is dying before our eyes. Selfish and ambitious she most certainly was, but she was also human, as this intimate production of Evita makes abundantly clear.

Miller makes very real Eva’s transition from schoolgirl to wife of the President.  The Chance has no more interesting actor than Irish, and his Che is yet another feather in his cap, a lean and hungry radical with a devilish gleam in his eye.  Lamer is well cast as Peron. He looks the part, and acts it powerfully.

But here’s the rub.  All three actors are good singers, and so are Clarissa Barton (Mistress) and Bill Strongin (Magaldi).  But Evita is almost totally sung through (i.e. there is virtually no spoken dialog; everything is sung). ALW’s nonstop score needs great singers to achieve its full power, and it doesn’t help that Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin (Broadway’s Eva and Che) are two of the finest singers ever to have graced a New York stage and that theirs is the version stuck in the heads of Evita aficionados.

There’s also the matter of the musical accompaniment.  The previously mentioned Chance musicals sounded quite good indeed with small combos backing up the singers.  Two keyboards plus percussion and bass simply cannot take the place of an orchestra, or do justice to songs like “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”

Still there is much to admire in this production beginning with the fine ensemble. David J. Dalton, Marlana Filannino, Dan Flapper, Jara Jones, Jessie McLean, Tanya Raisa Mironowski, and Sarah Pierce have a lot to do in this show and do it well.

Christopher Scott Murillo’s warmly-hued set is quite different from the show’s usual black backdrop, and perhaps more fitting for a multicolored land like Argentina. (The backdrop appears to be somewhere between a story book and a theater proscenium, both of them appropriate for this very theatrical fairy tale.) Masako Tobaru’s lighting varies effectively to fit each song and emotion. Alisa Duffey and Miller’s costumes are probably the show’s strongest design elements, with Eva’s many gowns being particular standouts. High marks also for Casey Long’s sound and Jenelle M. Smith’s wigs.

Audience reaction to the opening night performance was enthusiastic, and with reason. Though not entirely successful, The Chance’s Evita is a production worth seeing, if only to experience Evita up close and personal as it has never been before.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E La Palma Ave., Anaheim.

–Steven Stanley
August 2, 2008

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