'Evita,' Trying Hard to Be Populist

Amanda Johnson in the title role and Scott Sedar as Juan Peron in the Open Circle Theatre production at Round House Theatre.
Amanda Johnson in the title role and Scott Sedar as Juan Peron in the Open Circle Theatre production at Round House Theatre. (By Ian Armstrong -- Open Circle Theatre)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 14, 2006

Who should be the real star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita"? The actress in the title role as the ambitious performer turned first lady of Argentina? The man playing Che Guevara, who angrily snarls narration as Eva Peron manipulates her way to the political top? Lloyd Webber himself, whose pop-symphonic score has undeniable theatrical panache?

In Joe Banno's egalitarian production, it's the people, and that suits the purposes of the Open Circle Theatre just fine. Open Circle's mission is to include artists with and without disabilities, so this "Evita" offers an Argentine citizenry that looks less like a standard Broadway chorus than an actual populace suddenly collected in the street.

And it is the wooing and gullibility of these people that drives much of the story, since Eva Peron's stunning rise from B-actress to first lady is propelled by their assent. That's always made "Evita" a bit of a director's show, the opportunity to stylishly mold the masses to Lloyd Webber's fast-moving percussive music.

In this case, Banno uses a strip stage (almost like a runway, with the audience on opposite sides) at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring. The staging enhances his conceit that the show is launched in a music club (the front rows are cafe tables) and also gives the feel of a parade route, with bleachers on two sides. Banno and choreographer Cassie Meador of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange have a lot to orchestrate on that runway: club-style performances, political addresses, crowded street scenes and elaborate production numbers that sweep through gobs of history, often with less-than-crystalline narrative from lyricist-librettist Tim Rice.

On top of all that, this production is interpreted in American Sign Language by actors who are aggressively incorporated into the action. It can make for crowded bedroom scenes -- two Evas, two Perons, sometimes shoulder to shoulder -- but Banno and sign master Fred Beam manage to keep the clutter minimal.

Aside from an exquisite tableau when the citizenry sits like enthralled kids as Eva sings "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," nothing stands out as terrific, yet the battalion of moving parts is marshaled into a pretty cogent, tightly rendered show. The dancing (which the program takes pains to note was created by Meador with Peter DiMuro and the Lerman company) clearly pushes some performers to their limits, but the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Likewise music director Stuart Weich's small instrumental combo, which initially seems too puny to handle the orchestral oomph required for Lloyd Webber's sometimes grandiose score of tragedy and sentiment. But cynicism is dominant in the music of "Evita," and for that Weich's feisty little band fills the bill.

The title role wants a big strapping voice, and while Amanda Johnson is confident and melodic, her essential sound is often too cottony for Evita's steel-belted style. Rob McQuay's weary irony is effective in the role of Che, and the fact that the actor uses a wheelchair seems to help the show's balance, which other stomping, rampaging interpretations of the character often threaten to tip. Also worth mentioning is Stephen McWilliams, who brings an amusing touch of Chris Isaak to the crooner Magaldi.

Though it clearly wants to, "Evita" isn't smart enough to make you contemplate the theater of politics; the piece has always been essentially a vehicle for showmanship. This production is neither a revelation nor an eye-popping spectacle, but it is, as "Evitas" tend to be, a couple of agreeably bustling hours on the stage.

Evita, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Joe Banno. Set, David C. Ghatan; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Zoe Cowan; sound design, Matt Neilson Anderson. Through Aug. 27 at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd. Call 240-683-0305 or visit .

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