2005 Season


'Evita' still has the power to seduce


May 25, 2005

Politics may make strange bedfellows, but rarely a decent musical. So in the mid-1970s, after Juan Peron's return from exile to become president of Argentina one last time, a pair of Brits decided to create an indecent musical about his first rise to power.

Peronism was an ideology, like capitalism or communism. But to Argentina's underclass, its face was that of an illegitimate daughter who clawed her way from obscurity to become a patron saint of opportunism. She was born Eva Duarte, but the masses knew Peron's movie-star bride as Evita. Trade unions and juntas were never so sexy as in the 1978 pop opera about her by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Gateway Playhouse has chosen to open its season with "Evita" for the second time in a decade, her power to seduce, at least in this robust revival, stands undiminished.

Director D.J. Salisbury opens cleverly by screening the last several minutes of the Cary Grant movie "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" with Spanish subtitles - a film that might've been playing in Buenos Aires the day Eva Peron died young in 1952. We even get a double feature. As the play begins, a B-movie starring Eva is interrupted by the flashback announcement that the first lady of Argentina has joined the angels.

Lisa Brescia (Amneris in Broadway's "Aida") masters the title role with a force-of-nature transformation from 15-year-old waif to four-star wife of a nation. Her acknowledgment that "they adore me" justifies her demand that they "Christian Dior me." Indeed, she's begowned by costumer Stephen Hollenbeck like a superstar as she takes the podium at her husband's inauguration, delivering "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" as an acceptance speech.

Dan Cooney of Broadway's "Les Misérables" acquits the dual role of Che Guevara (who in real life, probably never met Eva Peron) with as much dignity as a bearded Jiminy Crickett could muster. As narrator and Evita's conscience, Cooney sings the backstory with the wit and insight of an eyewitness tour guide. Jonathan Hammond as Juan Peron reflects the insecurity of a usurper watching his back. Never has a junta's consolidation of power been so insightfully drawn as in "Evita's" musical-chairs "Art of the Possible," which follows Eva's own game of elimination. In "Good Night and Thank You," she dismisses lovers through her revolving bedroom door, starting with Ernest Marchain as the singer who discovered her, and ending with Peron.

Eva consolidates her power by firing Peron's lover. Lakisha Bowen brims with jilted resignation in "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," perhaps the best number ever written for a character who has no other lines.

Musical director Jeffrey Buschbaum's orchestration lends a Spanish inflection to Lloyd Webber's score. But "Evita's" thrilling Act I becomes the worst enemy of Act II, which suffers the inevitability of history: We already know the outcome. Unlike a roller-coaster ride, the thrill is in the climb, not the descent.

EVITA. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics Tim Rice. Gateway Playhouse, 215 South Country Rd., Bellport, through June 11. Tickets $32-$38; 631-286-1133, www.gatewayplayhouse .com. Seen Friday.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.