South American idol 

Montana Theatre unearths Evita

The story of Evita seems a timely reminder, in this era of image-hungry 24-hour news channels, of the conflicting realities of pop iconography and personality cults. The main character is just as compelling, tragic and current today as she was half a century ago. The musical, after all, is about a woman who sleeps her way to power, consumes a country with her popularity and, all the while, battles openly with her own internal conflicts.

In his Missoula debut, director Keith Hitchcock delivers an ambitious, energetic and elegant musical spectacle at The Montana Theatre. A joint UM drama/dance and music department production, Evita was written by the ridiculously talented team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

While not exactly historically accurate, Evita tells the story of Maria Eva Duarte, the poor country girl who clawed her way to the top of the Argentinean social ladder in the 1940s by employing a combination of unabashed sexual conquest and cunning political savvy. She eventually married Juan Peron, who became president of Argentina. Eva helped orchestrate Peron’s campaign and won him popular support by courting the country’s poor, or descamisados (“shirtless ones”), and espousing a populist message. In the process she became something of a saint to the masses and earned the endearing nickname Evita.

The musical opens with the announcement of Evita’s death. The grief of the people upon hearing the news is moving as they wail and weep. This is a representation of Eva’s real-life funeral in 1952, when thousands of mourners waited in line for days just to catch a glimpse of her coffin. This scene also works to give some sense of the devotion the masses had for Evita, and her impact on her country’s collective psyche.

We are next introduced to Che, played forcefully by Nathaniel Peterson, who emerges as the musical’s principle narrator. His character is based on the Latin American guerilla leader Che Guevara, a staunch anti-Peronista student activist in Buenos Aires in the 1940s. He is a cocky, sarcastic guide through the musical’s plot, speaking directly to the audience. Che is on to Eva’s act, so to speak, and is not shy about letting the audience and Eva know that he thinks her so-called commitment to the masses and her celebrity are a sham. In “Oh What A Circus” he wryly sings, “You let down your people Evita/You were supposed to have been immortal/That’s all they wanted, not much to ask for.”

Nicki Poer’s portrayal of Eva is convincing and layered. As Eva climbs the ranks of Buenos Aires’ elite, we see her blossoming confidence and ambition in Poer’s strong voice, beaming smile and general moxy.

In “Good Night & Thank You” she justifies the mercenary nature of her sexual conquests when she sings that everyone hopes “their lover will help them or keep them/Support them, promote them/Don’t blame them, you’re the same.” The staging is clever during this scene as an endless stream of lovers emerges from the depths of Eva’s well-used bed like devils from Pandora’s box.

The music, directed by David Cody, is the obvious backbone of the performance, presenting Webber’s bountiful score of musical genres ranging from bossa nova to jazz, ’70s rock to samba. It combines with the cast’s voices in large chorale numbers like the rousing “A New Argentina” to portray the insistent will of the people.

The second act opens with Juan Peron (Avery Williams) on a balcony, having just won the presidential election. Williams is a sweet and somewhat naïve Peron, the unwitting tool of his cunning wife. The people chant for Evita and Peron is upstaged as she emerges radiant with her trademark platinum locks and bright grin and sings “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” In this song, Evita feels the need to explain her rise to power to the masses, despite the fact that they already worship her. With its haunting refrain—“I kept my promise/Don’t keep your distance”—the song gives us a sense of Eva’s vulnerability and the ironic loneliness she feels as an icon to millions.

The staging is inventive throughout, convincingly portraying the setting and making the most of the space. During “Rainbow Tour,” for example, a group of cheering well-wishers moves past a seated Evita, creating a sense of motion for her extensive European travels.

In “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out)” we see a big, fun, rollicking song-and-dance number full of Heather Adams’ crisp choreography and high-energy dance, the stage littered with the money that Evita lavishes on the poor. The number is typical of this upbeat and entertaining show. It showcases a large, talented cast whose voices and energy solidly convey the legendary musical’s message: the price of ambition and the inescapable bounds of mortality.

The UM Department of Drama/Dance, in collaboration with the Department of Music, presents Evita at UM’s Montana Theatre April 5–9 and April 12–16. Performances begin at 7:30 PM, and tickets cost $15/general, $12/students and seniors and $5/children 10-and-under. Call 243-4581 for more information.

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