Evita the Diva: Still Alive and Kicking

Staged with skillful inventiveness and quicksilver fluency at Bay Street Theater
Trent Saunders and the cast of "Evita" Lenny Stucker

Broadway habitués summering in the Hamptons need not leave the beach. “Evita,” the iconic bio-operetta by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice about that Machiavellian little minx who captivated Argentina, is being staged with skillful inventiveness and quicksilver fluency at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through Sept. 2.

Such a high-caliber production was entirely unexpected. This is not a slight against the Bay Street team, which consistently produces the best theater on the East End. But “Evita”? That razzle-dazzle sung-through spectacular boasting some of Mr. Lloyd Webber and Mr. Rice’s best, most tightly composed work using Latin American rhythms, military marches, inherently romantic ballads, a mammoth cast, and a giant stage to showcase this kaleidoscopic musical pageant?

I had only seen the show onstage in London during a 2006 West End revival and it provided all the full-blown ecstasy one looks for in a musical. Before that, I had watched Alan Parker’s glossy, creamy 1996 screen version starring Madonna, who seemed so cosmically right to explore the idea of fame as an amoral religion.

How could Bay Street possibly turn such a glitzy spectacle into a studio version, on a confined stage, and with a relatively tiny cast of 14? 

Unlike the original play, which opens at Eva Peron’s funeral, the Sag Harbor production is set on July 26, 1962, the 10th anniversary of Evita’s death, in a run-down tango club in Argentina where a group of Peronistas gather every year to put on the play and remember their beloved Evita. Incidentally, this was the year the Peronists staged a coup d’etat while their leader was exiled in Paraguay, that rain forest retirement community for Nazis.

The play within a play is generally a setup to be avoided, but by confining it to the club, Will Pomerantz, the show’s director and Bay Street’s associate artistic director, uses the theater’s limitations to present the re-enactment as an emblematic spectacle; one that makes its points through images and anecdotes rather than grand ideas.

And he carries this idea through to the performances. Arianna Rosario, with credits such as “On Your Feet,” “Cats,” and “West Side Story,” offers an Eva who is less multidimensional and more a series of lightning impressions: the teenage hick who latches on to the foppish tango singer, Agustin Magaldi (Kyle Barisich, who delightfully croons a mellifluous “On This Night of a Thousand Stars”); the calculating shrew who rises horizontally through Buenos Aires society, and the ultimate opportunist who in 1944 meets the ascendant Juan Peron. It’s business at first sight; Peron becomes president and Eva, through her drive, charisma, and manipulation, turns into Argentina’s favorite dictator’s wife, and eventually into a sanctified populist.

Ms. Rosario is a tiny woman with a big voice, a combination adored by musical cultists, and here she sings up a storm. But, while her voice pleases, it lacks a clarion ring and too often its strident tone grates. Still, with chin tilted and eyes flashing, she offers a respectable glimpse of Eva’s charisma and ruthless ambition.

In real life, Ms. Rosario is about to be married to Omar Lopez-Cepero, once an “American Idol” finalist, who plays her onstage dictator husband, who seems mostly to lurk in the shadows as Eva goes about becoming the legend.

It is the character Che that holds the musical together. Played here by a hugely entertaining Trent Saunders, who will return to “Aladdin” on Broadway in the fall, Che was originally depicted as Che Guevara, the fierce rebel known best for his part in the Cuban revolution. In actuality, the revolutionary Guevara had little, if anything, to do with the Perons, so the character has slowly morphed into an anonymous socially conscious narrator, without the signature beret, who stalks the stage like a one-man Greek chorus questioning the motives of the Perons. His hostility is delivered in brilliantly sharp couplets such as “Instead of government we had a stage / instead of ideas a prima donna’s rage.” 

There is so much to admire in Bay Street’s production: the 14-member ensemble that, with the exception of young Dakota Quackenbush from East Hampton, is entirely Latino and play all the roles — soldiers, aristocrats, the working class, and the working poor, often transforming multiple times within the same music sequence. There is such fluency in their transformations that it is simply joyful to watch. 

Anna Louizos, the show’s scenic designer, and Mike Billings, its lighting designer, beautifully evoke the smoky romance of a sultry Buenos Aires tango bar, with a set of wrought-iron balconies and crumbling brick walls — it’s an Argentina of the mind, all sexy and dreamy. 

And here’s where the show’s true star comes into play. Once the iron-and-wood-and-brick hallways, stairwells, and balcony have been put in place, plus a sizable alcove for a live and terrific musical ensemble, there appears to be little room for the cast to be at all demonstrative, let alone tango their way through reviving the musical life of Evita.

Marcos Santana, the show’s choreographer, whose Broadway credits include “On Your Feet,” “Rocky,” and “Guys and Dolls,” wins the show’s M.V.P. award for filling every inch of available space with Broadway-caliber dance routines and all kinds of magic. 

Love it or hate it, “Evita” is one of the most successful musicals of the 20th century. Since it first opened in 1978, it has been performed on every continent and has made over $2 billion worldwide. “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” the show’s catchy tear-jerking ballad in honor of a dead fascist’s dead wife, was first released in an album in 1976, the year America was celebrating 200 years of freedom and Argentina was not. It remains so beguiling that one can easily fall for the heroine’s dangerous allure, just like the poor descamisados (the “shirtless ones”) who adored her. And as such, “Evita” is an all too timely demonstration of the way blatant populist politics work where the wide-eyed get suckered.

But then the theater, and the theater of politics, have always been places where baddies shine.

Performances are on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m.

Above photo: Omar Lopez-Cepero and Arianna Rosario by Lenny Stucker

Arianna Rosario (on the bar) and the rest of the cast of “Evita,” now at Bay Street Theater through Sept. 2. Lenny Stucker
Arianna Rosario and Trent SaundersLenny Stucker