By Mary Beth Casper
Don’t cry for her, Argentina!
The spirit of the legendary Eva “Evita” Peron is alive and well, and temporarily living in Northport at the John W. Engeman Theater.
“Evita,” the Andrew Lloyd-Webber-Tim Rice operetta, opened on Sept. 18 and runs through Nov. 2.
If you haven’t already purchased tickets, you should. The resounding reactions of early audiences should mean this production will soon sell out.
In Broadway’s original “Evita,” Northport native Patti LuPone’s portrayal of Eva Peron set the gold standard for anyone else who undertakes the role.
The beautiful Janine Divita’s performance of Evita at the Engeman is one that LuPone would applaud. Divita is the real deal. She becomes Evita with every breath she takes, every elegant move she makes, as well as with every incredible word she sings in a play that has no spoken dialogue.
Divita’s voice is glorious, filling the theatre with a majestic quality that captivates audiences just as the real Evita Peron captured the working-class hearts of Juan Peron’s Argentina during the World War II and post War era.
For those who aren’t familiar with the play, the story focuses on the meteoric rise to fame and fortune of Maria Eva Duarte Peron (“Evita”), who began life as a poor girl in the slums of Argentina, but with steely determination and the use of her sexual wiles, climbed the ladder of success to become a model and stage actress and then, First Lady of her nation.
Eva Peron may have been the first of many modern-day women who knew how to use the media to help build and maintain the image she wished to convey to her adoring public. While the working class loved her, she was ridiculed by the upper class.
Divita portrays Evita with a fire in her belly and sheer determination in her eyes.
The play is told with the use of a storyteller, Che (the rebel Che Guevara, one of Juan Peron’s political foes). Che is played by Aaron C. Finley. Finley’s stage presence is commanding, his voice astounding.
Evita begins as an audience of working place Argentines sit in a theater enjoying a film. A voice breaks in telling them their beloved Eva Peron has died. Deep shock and sadness ensue, and the people reverently sing a Requiem to their cherished Evita.
Che cynically dismisses all the mourning, singing, “Oh, What a Circus.”
In a few flashbacks in time, the audience witnesses the teen-aged brunette Eva, convincing a tango lounge singer to take her out of the slums to Buenos Aires, where she is determined to become a star. Che sings of her ability to hitch her wagon to the star of any man who can further her career. We see the young Eva sleeping her way up the ladder of success.
After an earthquake severely damages one Argentine city, the now blonde Eva attends a fundraiser hosted by military leader, Juan Peron. In a bold gesture, she seduces Peron by serenading him with “I’d be Surprisingly Good for You.” Peron agrees with her words. He takes her home with him, that night, where she immediately moves in, dismissing his current mistress.
Peron’s election and the success he and Evita eagerly embrace are ridiculed by Che in the song, “High Flying and Adored.”
In Act 2, the operetta’s amazing showstopper, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” has Evita singing to the masses of her willingness to leave her acting career behind and work with her husband to make their peoples’ lives better. Divita’s rendition of the song produced goose bumps and won resounding applause.
Throughout the rest of Act II, we see Eva planning a trip to Europe in order to bolster the image of the Peron presidency. She also starts a charitable foundation to help her beloved working-class citizens, but soon becomes so taken with her own fame that she falls victim to the lure of money and power. The saintly image, now tarnished, is lambasted by Che.
Sadly, Evita’s young, charismatic life is threatened by an advanced cancer, and she dies at the age of 33, leaving Peron and her people behind in deep mourning. Evita is a classic soap opera set to an exquisite score. The cast members embrace their roles fully. Credit Director Igor Golden for eliciting believable performances from all – even the chorus members.
Aided by a beautiful set by Daniel Willis, amazing costumes by Kurt Alger, and excellent music direction (James Olmstead), choreography (Antoinette DiPietropolo) and lighting (Zach Blane), this production is nearly picture perfect.
Bruce Winnant is the proud President Juan Peron, whose dedication to his people and tender love for his Evita are presented beautifully.
One last shout out needs to go to young Ashley Perez Flanagan, who, in one brief solo, brought the house down. Flanagan plays the Peron mistress whom Evita dismisses on the night she moves in with Peron. Flanagan’s beautiful voice and tragic questioning, “Where will I go?” tugged at the heart strings of audience members. She definitely has a future!