It’s hard to think of “Evita” without the kind of star quality that the aggressive title character sings about in the die-hard Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The original 1970s production was famously slick, dripping with celebrity as it chronicled the meteoric and underhanded rise of actress Eva Perón scheming her way to becoming Argentina’s first lady.
The new staging at the Olney Theatre Center takes a working-class approach, unfolding in the abandoned ballroom of the Casa Rosada. The presidential residence is rendered by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado in tawdry pink, with water stains near the top of the ceiling. Even when she becomes a fashion icon singing “They need to adore me/So Christian Dior me,” this Evita won’t knock you out with her bling.
Do you miss the sheen? A little. The larger-than-life quality of Lloyd Webber’s pop orchestral score, with Evita singing high and wild rock lines, is made of the same kind of seductive, lavish, diamond-like material it professes to critique.
Yet director Will Davis’s production is steadfastly thoughtful, powerfully choreographed and relentlessly well-acted. If it doesn’t fully electrify Lloyd Webber’s show, it’s still bright enough to harness a lot of “Evita’s” essential charisma.
It certainly nails the dynamic relationships between Evita, her husband, Juan Perón, and the show’s revolutionary leader and zealous anti-Evita critic, Che (modeled after Che Guevara, though not dressed in the familiar military fatigues by costume designer Ivania Stack). As Evita, Rachel Zampelli persuasively navigates the demanding songs, from the power pop of “Buenos Aires” and “A New Argentina” to the manipulative ballad “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Zampelli responds to the predatory pulse in the music with a controlled animalistic ambition; she’s a wily strategist, and her showdowns with Perón, with Che, and even with an entire disdainful chorus of military men all crackle nicely.
Nick Duckart’s assured Perón is as cool and impressive as his pressed white suit, but the show’s chief relationship is between Eva and her narrator, Che. Robert Ariza is fiery without being overblown, authoritatively grabbing the microphone stand and driving cynical numbers about Evita’s fake populism and empty promises. In this chamber-size staging the score isn’t played with the symphonic sweep of the original, but musical director Christopher Youstra’s seven-piece ensemble delivers plenty of propulsive rock and tango rhythms. Ariza fully plugs into that energy.
So does Christopher d’Amboise’s choreography, which is whip-smart with its storytelling in the exuberant exposé “And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out).” Political turmoil is wonderfully captured in the lunging, roiling bodies of “A New Argentina,” and d’Amboise renders both the brawn of the military men in chauvinistic opposition to Evita and the subtle seductions of appealingly light tango dancing behind “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.”
The performance occasionally seems to linger too long in its dramatic pauses, yet almost every time you feel this show is shortchanging the material’s native zip and scale it’s likely to pull out an unexpectedly effective low-tech flourish or an intriguing, clever dance. It’s an alternate take on a glitzy musical that has always stood at the intersection of showbiz and politics, and one that’s clear-eyed about how critics such as Che may be mere voices in the wilderness as savvy celebrities harness populist fervor and steamroll to power.
Evita Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Will Davis. Lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design, Lane Elms. With Megan Adrielle, Jonathan Atkinson, Ronald Bruce, Mark Chandler, Willie Dee, Jamie Eacker, Ashleigh King, Nick Lehan, Nurney, Maria Rizzo, Kristin Yancy and Jane Zogbi. About two hour and 20 minutes. Through July 24 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Tickets $38-$75. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.