Director Gloria DuGan has a sharp eye for spotting the strengths and weaknesses of theater productions. That ability, and her discipline, are evident in the Vienna Theatre Company's "Evita," Andrew Lloyd Webber's operatic rendering of a story based on the life of a poor Argentinian girl who slept her way to the top, only to be worshipped as a saint by the impoverished people of her country. It's an emotive, ear-pleasing experience.
Dealing pragmatically with the realities of the limited space and technical capabilities of the Vienna Community Center, DuGan has scaled back the staging, diminishing the visual spectacle and Argentinian ambiance. Instead she focuses attention where it counts most -- on the passion at the heart of the story, conveyed by Webber's lovely, complex and nearly continuous score.
Scenic designer Steve Ross created just one set piece, a generic wooden building exterior that provides the required balcony. Quickly assembled props are used for the scenes that tell Evita's story, from humble origins to her reign as Eva, wife of the country's president, Juan Peron.
Webber's score combines operatic rigors with lyrics from Tim Rice and little spoken dialogue. With a spartan setting featuring colorful costumes, this production thus has the ambiance of an enhanced concert. The orchestra, conducted by David Rohde, makes good use of French horns, nicely accommodates both reeds and brass, and, thankfully, manages to create a lush sound without relying much on the dreaded keyboard synthesizer.
The space limits the amount of dancing. Choreographer Jeannie Torres has concentrated on stylized, synchronized movement with her ensemble, creating a visual rhythm that adds energy to the musical performances. The cast members are always active, frequently moving in unison.
As Evita, Vienna Theatre Company newcomer Molly Wilmesherr displays a strong and beautiful voice that fails her only briefly, in the rousing anthem, "A New Argentina," where she has a tendency to shout rather than sing in reaching for some of the high notes, a common problem with this difficult song.
Her performance in the evocative "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," backed by a chorus, is suitably moving in more ways than one. As she begins, the balcony segment of the set piece on which she stands moves toward the very edge of the stage, allowing her to sing directly to the audience. It is effective stagecraft, one bit of showbiz spectacle DuGan has employed.
Wilmesherr successfully exudes the toughness Evita possessed as she pulled herself out of the slums, and she captures the essence of the glittering autocrat that Evita became, the internationally celebrated first lady of Argentina with eyes on the vice presidency. But she blandly portrays the character's descent into illness, undercutting somewhat the emotional wallop at the play's conclusion.
As revolutionary Che Guevara, who serves as storyteller, Ryan Khatcheressian has a voice almost too pretty for the gritty character, but he offsets its soaring beauty by dropping into its lower register as much as possible. Che and Evita never met in real life, underscored in their one big moment together onstage, the haunting "Waltz for Eva and Che," where they dance and sing without actually touching.
Stephanie Pencek might have walked away with the show if the part of Juan Peron's mistress were larger. Literally tossed out of her bed by Eva, Pencek imbues the poignant and melodic "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" with a sense of loss and loneliness, combined with inner strength. She approaches the operatic song as if it were a ballad, which enhances rather than detracts from its power.
As Juan Peron, David F. Boleyn looks the part, but it's obvious he's working hard, the vocal challenges straining his capabilities.
"Evita," lean and forceful, wraps up a month-long run this weekend.
Showtime 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. The Vienna Community Center is at 120 Cherry St. For tickets, call 703-255-6360. For information, visit www.httpcity.com/vtcshows.