WINTER HAVEN — I wonder if sometime in the future, Amy Winehouse’s tragic death will inspire someone to write a big Broadway musical about her: soaring talent, tragically cut short at age 27. Or maybe she simply didn’t live long enough to inspire a musical, who knows?
Andrew Lloyd Webber has been one of the world’s most successful composers because he have a great instinct for figuring out who to base a musical on, from Jesus Christ to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, to one of his greatest successes, a musical about the late Eva Paron. If this rags to riches story wasn’t as well known to audiences outside of Aregentina when it had its premiere in London in 1976, let’s just say that’s changed considerably in the countless decades that audiences have been singing along to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”
From the opening moments of “Evita,” the musical instantly sweeps you in: It’s a hot night in July 1952, when an audience at a cinema in Buenos Aires watches a movie that gets interupted by the nation’s secretary of the press, who announces that its his sad duty to report that “Eva Perón entered immortality at 8:25 hours this evening ….” We watch as the heartbroken cinema audience sings “Requiem for Evita” — which almost immediately prompts us to start wondering who this person was that brought an entire nation to such heartfelt mourning. Webber and lyricist Tim Rice do a superb job of chronicling her life story, often quite cynically presented through our narrator, Che, who doesn’t hide the warts associated with the story of the woman raised in the slums who developed, shall we say, stunningly good survival instincts.
Webber was right, Eva Paron had a heck of a juicy story to tell, and it’s no wonder that when community theaters decide to revive “Evita,” they attract packed crowds like the one Theatre Winter Haven got on Sunday for the matinee of their first production of “Evita” in 15 years.
It’s an ambitious show to tackle, since it requies a mammoth cast — something Theatre Winter Haven didn’t shy away from by employing no fewer than 46 actors, singers and dancers. That’s an impressive array of talent for a theater that doesn’t have the kind of budget that you’d find at, say, the Bob Carr Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando.
Then again, the theater’s ability to attract talent on stage appears complemented by the talent behind the scenes that put the show together. If community theaters select an “Evita” revival because they know it’s what audience want to see, Theatre Winter Haven does nothing to disappoint in this beautifully mounted production.
To help tell a story that spans nearly two decades, Theatre Winter Haven employs a revolving setpiece of stairs on one side, a brick wall on the other; turning the setpiece around signifies the change in time and location. So we watch as Che takes us back, introducing us to 15-year-old Eva in 1934 as she sets her sights on a tango singer, Agustin Magaldi, who takes her to Buenos Aires. That’s where Eva discovers that her natural beauty enables her to find men who can help fulfill her ambitions of being a model, radio star and actress.
Soon Agustin is out and Eva eventually sets her sights on Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, an ambitious military colonel working his way up the Argentinian political ladder. They meet at a charity concert Peron has organized after an earthquake hits the town of San Juan, and the meeting leads to a secret rendezvous after the concert. Next thing you know, Peron’s mistress is packing her bags and Eva has taken over.
Sex, politics, tragedy, fascism … not bad for one compact musical, though I suppose a production filled with stumbling dancers, croaking singers and Gee-mom-I’m-on-stage first time actors could easily turn it all into a theatrical travesty. Theatre Winter Haven has no such worries; the supremely talented cast they’ve assembled lets you feel those hot summer nights in Buena Aires as the lighting crew bathes the stage in a bright red light, and Eva sings about her hopes and dreams of the future.
The performers are a reminder of the terrific talent that Central Florida has to offer, including Eizabeth Burton in the title role, who makes us fully understand why a nation would become so fascinated by one woman, and Jeremy Chase as our cynical narrator Che, who knows a lot more about the Eva Paron story than some of her Argentinian fans do. Mark Hartfield also stands out as the ambitious general slick enough to take over a nation, but still human enough to fall for Eva’s charms.
Highly professional, beautifully choreographed and with some knockout singing voices, “Evita” is as good as community theater gets, and a happy reminder than you don’t need plane tickets for Manhatten to get the good stuff on stage. “Evita” runs now through Aug. 7, with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.
Theatre Winter Haven is at the Chain O’ Lakes Complex at 210 Cypress Gardens Boulevard SE in Winter Haven. To learn more, call the box office at 863-294-SHOW, email TWHtickets@aol.com or log on to www.TheatreWinterHaven.com.
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