No matter how many times you’ve seen Evita, you haven’t really seen it till you’ve seen Christa Jackson in the title role. As Eva Perón, Jackson gives one of the two or three most thrilling performances I’ve seen by a lead actress in a musical in the past several years. Directed and choreographed to perfection by the amazing Sha Newman, FCLO Music Theatre’s revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice blockbuster is that rare CLO production, one which could be transplanted to Broadway exactly as is. In other words, this Evita is out and out brilliant.


Newman’s innovative vision for the show is there from its first minutes, as a Buenos Aires movie audience’s enjoyment of the latest 1952 film hit is interrupted by an announcement that Eva Perón, “the spiritual leader of the nation, has entered immortality.”  There are screams and sobs, movie patrons grab each other for support, and as spotlights pick out one or another of the distressed audience members, frozen in shock, a still photo of the same person or people is projected onto the movie screen above. This striking juxtaposition of live actors and photographs immediately signals the FCLO audience that this Evita will anything but paint-by-numbers.  

It takes a while for us to meet Eva Duarte, or at least the alive-and-well Eva.  First comes “Requiem For Evita,” with its bowed mourners filing rhythmically past Eva’s open coffin to pay their respects to the deceased First Lady of Argentina, wife of President Juan Perón.  The charismatic figure of a character known only as Che, a sort of one-man Greek chorus and narrator, observes this all from the outside (“Oh What A Circus”), and before long we have gone back eighteen years to a night club in Junín, Eva’s hometown, where matinee heartthrob Augustín Magaldi is serenading his female fans with “On This Night Of A Thousand Stars,” in an extravagantly ruffled shirt that would put Ricky Ricardo in his Babaloo mode to shame.

And then, there she is, young brunette Eva, ready to seduce Magaldi, move to Buenos Aires, and conquer the world. 

“Buenos Aires,” always one of Evita’s most rousing numbers, becomes the first of many showcases for Jackson, the quintessential triple threat, as envisioned and choreographed by Newman. This is not your typical “Eva sings, the dancers dance ‘Buenos Aires’” because leading them in their foot-stomping moves is Eva herself. You can bet that Broadway’s original Eva (Patti Lupone) wasn’t called upon to dance the house down, but Jackson is, and does. An Eva who dances, just like the real one.  Who knew?

In “Goodnight And Thank You,” Eva begins her rise to international stardom as a series of lovers, each higher positioned than the one before, enter and exit Eva’s life—literally—through a revolving door. (Clever!)  Mid-song, Eva emerges as a blonde and stays that way from then on.

“The Art Of The Possible” is staged as a game of musical (rocking) chairs, as one by one the Argentinean colonels are eliminated until only Juan Perón, future President, is left standing (or rather sitting) and ready to assume power with a beautiful blonde by his side.  He meets Eva at a charity concert where they both realize that “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You.”  It’s goodbye to Perón’s mistress (“Another Suitcase In Another Hall”) and hello Eva.

In another wow-worthy production number, “Perón’s Latest Flame,” Newman has goose-stepping Army officers and members of the Argentinean aristocracy in their snootiest “Ascot Gavotte” mode sharing the stage and singing that “Things have reached a pretty pass when someone pretty lower-class, graceless and vulgar, uninspired, can be accepted and admired.”

Never underestimate a woman with a goal, however, for soon Evita Perón has persuaded her smitten husband to try for Argentina’s highest prize, the Presidency, and Act One ends with a rousing, fists-in-the-air “A New Argentina.”

Jackson’s powerful and moving rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” begins the second act with a bang as Eva continues her quest for power, popularity and fame. There’s her “Rainbow Tour” of Europe (with black and white press photos of the real Eva traveling through Europe projected above), a tour which started with high hopes only to end with the ignominious cancellation of the final stop, England. And then, as Perón’s administration becomes one of failure and abuse of power, Eva falls victim to the cancer which is to end her life at the age of 33.

Not every musical theater actress can go from Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun to Eva in Evita and be downright amazing in both roles, but Christa Jackson is just such an actress. Her appearances at Reprise! in Pippin and Applause have demonstrated Jackson’s dance expertise while her signature role as Patsy Cline in Always…Patsy Cline has proven her vocal prowess.  Now, as Eva, Jackson puts it all together in a performance that is not to be missed.  Whether dancing up a storm while belting out “Buenos Aires” or singing “Waltz For Eva and Che” in her crystal-clear “legit” register, or acting her way from feisty spitfire to elegant first lady to terminally ill cancer victim, Jackson give a performance that other Evas should be measured against and the one to beat in 2009’s award races.

I saw the second of Rudy Martinez’s five previous performances as Che way back in 1994 at the Downey Civic Light Opera.  The then 23-year-old has only improved with age, his Che combining a beautiful tenor with sly humor to make for a forceful, magnetic observer of Eva’s rise to fame, and her fall from the heights. 

Jay Willick, so marvelously villainous as hitman Klaus in Pest Control, is a fine Juan Perón. Besides being a first-rate singer/actor, Willick looks uncannily like photos of the thrice-elected President of Argentina, which adds an extra layer of verisimilitude to the production.  Jason Webb, an outstanding Che opposite Bets Malone at Performance Riverside a few years back, assumes the role of romantic crooner Magaldi here, singing “On This Night Of A Thousand Stars” in a voice to make Argentineans swoon.  Jill Townsend sings a lovely and poignant “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” as Perón’s “deposed” mistress.  Jennifer Brasuell and Oscar Gonzalez dance a sizzling tango.

Putting this all together is the phenomenal Sha Newman, whose reproduction of Jerome Robbins’ choreography in FCLO’s West Side Story was cited by StageSceneLA as last year’s most outstanding work by a choreographer.  Newman is at the top of her game here as a visionary director and a thrilling choreographer. Transport this production lock, stock, and barrel to Broadway and it would get raves, that’s how great Newman’s work (and that of her cast) is here.

It helps that in addition to her leads and supporting players, she’s got a terrifically talented ensemble to work with. Fernando Acevedo, Jenn Aedo, Araceli Urbina Applegate, Paul A. Brown, Amy Chapman, Richard Comeau, Jay Donnell, Deborah Fauerbach, Juan Guillen, Ginger Hart, Heather Hoppus-Werner, Danny Longoria, Bobby Perino, Paul Romero, Jr., Karie Seasock, Enrico E. Villanueva, Mark Wheeler, and Justin Wirick perform flawlessly, each and every one. The children are fine too: Jennasea Bauserman, Chase Del Rey, Lauren Desloge, Mark Desmond, Mary Desmond, Megan McGonigle, Jenna Rosen, Anthony Skillman, and Carter Thomas.

Musical director Lee Kreter conducts FCLO’s sensational 20-piece orchestra.  Donna Ruzika contributes her usual fine lighting design and sound designer A.J. Gonzalez makes the most of the Chapman Auditoriums somewhat strident sound system.  Ambra King Wakefield and Pamela Johnson-Gill’s costumes are delicious, from Eva’s gowns, to colorful soldiers’ uniforms, to the elegant black hues of the aristocracy’s garb.  

A recent intimate theater production of Evita did its best to scale down the show for a small stage venue, but Evita is a show that needs spectacle.  It thrives on dramatic sets, stunning costumes, a large ensemble of singers who can dance and dancers who can sing, a big stage to allow a choreographer full rein, and a charismatic Evita who can tear down the house with her voice—and stage presence to match.

In this, and all other respects, FCLO Music Theatre’s production of Evita is by far the best I’ve seen yet of this legendary Broadway hit. Even if you’ve seen some great Evitas before, you owe it to yourself not to miss Sha Newman’s direction and choreography and above all Christa Jackson’s unforgettable performance in the title role.

Viva Christa!  Viva Evita!

FCLO Music Theatre, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. 

–Steven Stanley
February 19, 2009

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