The rise of Eva Peron is on my short list of the most mind-boggling events of the 20th century. Who was Eva, and why was she so adored as Evita by untold millions of Argentines? Evita, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (book and lyrics), gives their version of the story.
Under director John Stephan, the Evita now running at Broadway Theatre of Pitman comes up with a mixed result. Wearing his choreographer hat, Stephan keeps his stage awash in movement. Up to a point, that makes sense. There is a lot of choral music in Webber's score. ("Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is the only memorable melody.)
Constant stage movement also jibes with the near civil war clash of the Peronists with the military elite and the Anglo-loving upper crust in Argentina. While Stephan captures the mayhem of Evita as a kind of sociological event, we never get into the exotic mystery of how Peron managed to take her country on a magical joyride.
The show touches on core events in her life. When Peron was a dance hall girl she dumps tango partner Magaldi (Garrick Vaughan) to take up with Juan Peron, kicking Peron's mistress (Victoria Mozitis) to the curb. But Eva Peron herself stays strangely undelineated, largely a preamble to the next big choral and dance sequence.
Christina Fuscellaro belts out Peron's songs in a clear mezzo, sometimes overpowering Juan Peron (baritone Andrew Jarema). With her looks and presence, Fuscellaro could do more. But the show plays down her character's festive side. We see little of her wacky European tour, where the blond bombshell advocated for the poor while dressing up like a Christian Dior diva, faced down the English monarchy, and was mobbed by exuberant millions on her return.
A similar lack of joy pervades Geoffrey Desiato's Che Guevara, a Greek choral figure who personifies critical intelligence. Always looking as if he just ate a pickle, Guevara shows up with clock-like regularity to scold Eva Peron and followers. He could be played as a rascally, impish figure who pops up unexpectedly, as capricious and whimsical as the events he decries.
The Pitman show is a grand spectacle that just tries too hard to sum up Eva Peron. But the truth of the Evita phenomenon is that it defies rational explanation. To this day, Eva Peron is a revered woman throughout Latin America, a dream catcher and repository of hope and aspiration, second only to the Virgin of Guadalupe.