Just when you thought the life and loves of Eva Peron had been done to death, along comes director Tim Dang and choreographer Cindera Che’s thrillingly reimagined Evita, this year’s USC School Of Dramatic Arts spring musical, a big-stage production that differs from regional theater’s finest only in the youth of its sensationally talented cast.

One of Broadway’s very first almost entirely “sung-through” musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita recounts the life of Argentina’s most famous/infamous First Lady from her late teens to her untimely death at thirty-three

 The charismatic Che (Tyler Ellis) serves as our guide, escorting us back in time to a small-town night club where local heartthrob Augustín Magaldi (David Shadman) meets a very young, very brunette Eva (Annika Ellwanger-Chavez), ready to seduce Magaldi, move to Buenos Aires, and conquer the world.

 Skyrocketing to fame and fortune thanks to a series of lovers, each higher positioned than the one before, Eva becomes bolder and blonder with each new paramour until army colonel Juan Perón (Taubert Nadalini) bids adieu to his teen Mistress (Sidne Phillips), the better to forge his political future with Eva by his side.

Before he can ascend to the presidency, however, Perón must first demonstrate “The Art Of The Possible” by eliminating all competitors to the presidency, just one of Evita’s now iconic songs that also include “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” “Perón’s Latest Flame,” “A New Argentina,” and “Rainbow Tour.”

 Director Dang, fresh from decades helming East West Players, and scenic designer Grace Wang have banished any trace of Evita’s traditional look. Goodbye double-decker scaffolding, hello wooden boxes that get configured and reconfigured in endlessly imaginative ways, and if the design seems simple (and the most common configuration turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, to be bed after bed after bed), it works, particularly as complemented by occasional projections, Lena Sands’ absolutely exquisite costumes, and Liam Sterbinsky’s vibrant, dramatic lighting design.

And should you find yourself thinking, “How can they do Eva’s balcony scene without a balcony?” just wait till you see Eva’s stage-level entrance in the most gorgeous pink floral gown you’ve ever seen (and just wait till you see Eva’s train and what it does).

 Perhaps most significantly, for a musical that few would ever call “Jerome Robbins-dancy,” choreographer Che comes up with so many ways to integrate dance and movement into just about every sequence involving Evita’s two-dozen-member triple-threat ensemble that you might think you’re seeing West Side Story, if not stylistically, at least in the amount and variety of dancing going on.

Che’s character-and-story-based choreography combines Argentinean moves with Broadway pizzazz and even (in a tip of the hat to movie-Eva Madonna) an inspired bit of voguing, “And The Money Kept Rolling In” once again proving the evening’s biggest showstopper, steadily building in size and excitement (and use of gold silk squares).

 Though director Dang pays tribute to the essence of Harold Prince’s too often simply “recreated” original Broadway vision (as in a game of musical chairs turns into one of “musical lights), there’s no trace of copy-cat staging on the Bing Theatre stage.

Take for example Dang’s “Goodnight And Thank You” done minus revolving doors, in their place a series of double beds, each with a different set of sheets and pillowcases, making it clear just how many bedrooms our social-climbing heroine has called home for a night.

Still, even with the most innovative direction, choreography, and design no Evita can take flight without a stellar trio of leads, and USC’s star threesome prove more than up to the challenge.

 Ellwanger-Chavez may be just twenty, but with A Little Night Music’s Desiree and Company’s Joanne under her belt in the past year alone, her fiery, deeply felt, thrillingly sung Eva is so stunning to look at and listen to that the USC junior would not be out of her element in a major regional production right this very minute.

As for Ellis, fresh from his star turn as Bobby in Company, you’ve never ever seen a Che like his, a lanky, clean-shaven, chapeau-sporting, politically involved cool-cat hipster with a sly sense of humor and a tenor that soars.

Completing the trio of leads, Nadalini (himself a USC star with leads in Merrily We Roll Along and A Little Night Music on his résumé) is precisely the handsome, dashing baritone who could easily have stolen Eva’s heart even before he’d climbed the political ladder.

 Shadman’s silky-voiced matinee-idol of a Magaldi and Phillips’ silver-soprano naïf of a Mistress deliver memorable cameos in addition to performing in Evita’s terrifically talented-and-tireless ensemble—Christina Braa, Liz Buzbee, Chas Conacher, Sarah Espey, GiGi Grombacher, Julia Iacopetti, Aaron Jung, Julianna Keller, Selene Klasner, Hailey Konovalov, Alexis MacAdam, Kaitlin Maxwell, Ryan McGowan, Tristan McIntyre, Kate Miller, Harrison Poe, Sarah Rosenthal, Luke Matthew Simon, Sean Soper, Michael Takla, Jack Tavcar, Emerson Taylor, Raquel Walder, and Milan Williams.

These multitalented Trojans shine vocally under Parmer Fuller’s expert musical direction of Evita’s professional-caliber eighteen-piece pit orchestra, aided by Stephen Jensen’s crystal-clear sound design.

Jessica Major is stage manager.

USC’s Evita easily makes the top-three of the nine regional and touring productions I’ve seen. Except for the age of its cast and crew, there’s nothing “student” about it.

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Bing Theatre, 3500 Watts Way, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
April 6, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz


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