Review: GALA Hispanic Theatre's 'Mummy in the Closet: The Return of Eva Perón'

Despite talents such as Laura Conforte as Eva Perón, GALA Hispanic Theatre's
Despite talents such as Laura Conforte as Eva Perón, GALA Hispanic Theatre's "Mummy in the Closet" doesn't quite hold together. (By Stan Weinstein)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Oh, what a circus! "Momia en el Closet (Mummy in the Closet): The Return of Eva Perón," a world-premiere musical at GALA Hispanic Theatre, is such a breathtakingly freakish mix of black comedy, serious historical musing, disciplined vaudeville and sheer ghoulishness that one longs for a whip-cracking ringmaster who might get the tone under control.

Not that the puddling of solemnity and outlandishness is solely attributable to the artists: History bears responsibility, too. Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott and Argentine composer Mariano Vales (the two co-authored the lyrics) have dramatized the true tale of Eva Perón's corpse, which figured in Argentine power struggles after her death from cancer in 1952.

As many theatergoers know from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita," Eva Duarte, raised in poverty, earned popular adulation after she married Juan Perón, who became Argentina's dictator. After a 1955 coup toppled Perón, the military took control of Eva's embalmed body, hiding it in various locales around the country and eventually sending it to Italy for secret burial, to prevent political rivals from exploiting it in a bid for popular sentiment. Juan Perón later repatriated Eva's remains.

It's a fascinating story, and GALA's production -- directed by Argentina's Mariano Caligaris and billed as a weaving of "fact and fiction" -- complements the tale with infectious music, spiced with salsa, liturgical chorales and other genres. With an offstage seven-person band and chorus of nearly two dozen, the sounds are lush.

Carina Losano, who gave Madonna tango tips for the "Evita" movie, according to the playbill, supplies witty choreography that references vogue-ing, ballroom dance and street-protest carousing. Mariana Fernández's set -- fragments of a socialist realist mural, and dangling shirts suggesting victims of repression -- is aptly evocative.

But those elements sit uneasily with the production's shifting moods. Here's a poignant dying Eva (Laura Conforte); or a somber video montage of military jets, representing the 1955 coup; or a song evoking Argentina's Dirty War. Then, jarring you out of reflection, come sequences that feel like Mel Brooks outtakes: warbling graveyard spirits, one of whom has a dagger in his head; a Rockettes-style dance line behind Eva's cadaver; henchman Jóse López Rega (Diego Mariani) on all fours, barking, to signal his doglike devotion to Juan Perón (Antonio Soto).

The talented actors, some Argentine, can't resolve the show's multiple personalities, but they do a swell job with individual moments. Sebastián Vitale, John Hager Flores, Gerald Montoya and Michael Vitaly Sazonov, doubling as soldiers, fashion stylists and other figures, display expert comic timing. Martín Ruiz is kookily appealing as an embalmer. And Conforte gets the year's good-sport award for playing a corpse whose face and gown grow increasingly ashen.

Momia en el Closet (Mummy in the Closet): The Return of Eva Perón. Music by Mariano Vales; book by Gustavo Ott; lyrics by Vales and Ott. Directed by Mariano Caligaris; musical direction, Vales; lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Martin Schnellinger; sound, Matt Otto and Matt Rowe; projections, Brendon Vierra. With Belén Oyola-Rebaza. In Spanish with English surtitles; 2 1/2 hours. Through June 28 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW. Call 202-234-7174 or visit

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