Don’t look for parallels in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s mesmerizing production of Evita. Sure, Tim Rice’s lyrics and story of the life of Eva (Dee Roscioli) and Juan Perón (Paulo Szot) depict angry crowds electing a demagogue, and explicitly draw comparisons to the WWII fascists Franco and Mussolini.
But don’t impose the poverty of our present on this superbly sung, visually gorgeous staging. Instead, let the stunning designs of Lisa Zinni’s costumes draw your senses to a more exquisite era, in which English aristocrats donned floral dresses and all-white suits to dominate the polo fields and Argentine industries with their imperialism. See Eric T. Haugen’s lighting transform a nearly bare stage into a cathedral of cultish hero-worship, where circles of light project upward, envisioning a stadium, a palace, and a mental battlefield where Evita and the revolutionary narrator, Che (Dan Domenesch), spar ideologically as much as they do in dance. Witness choreographer Stephen Casey blend aggressive tango movements with athletic swing, infusing the huge chorus with an energy that overpowers the Labuda Center’s small stage.
More important, listen. Nathan Diehl’s music direction leads a 15-piece orchestra through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s motif-laden score. Roscioli’s vocals display an early sweetness as the teenage Eva Duarte. That hardens alongside her careerist and political ambition and then dissolves tenderly as she approaches immortality. Glee star Domenech contributes a honeyed tenor, and Szot powers his verses with an operatic baritone tinged with a whisper of a South American accent that anchors the gravity of his role in history. Hear Jerusha Cavazos dazzle in her lone number as Perón’s former mistress (“Another Suitcase in Another Hall”).
Ignore the facts of Eva’s biography. Give them over to director Dennis Razze, who has crafted a love story so filled with tender moments that it transcends any biography. Razze and Szot depict Perón as a reluctant political savior (rather than a minor despot of history) and present Eva’s life sympathetically (despite Che’s constant complaints). When Szot-as-Perón spies her sprawled painfully across the floor, he stops, eager to assist, transfixed by impotence, then cradles her head in his arms as a helpless gesture. He can do nothing but continue to love her, highlighted by the inclusion of the song “You Must Love Me,” the Oscar-winning number written for the 1996 musical film.
Razze’s Evita whitewashes as it gilds, depicting Eva’s 33-year life with the energy of a shooting star across a twilit sky. When Evita arrives at Perón’s inauguration (“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”), her presence stuns the audience into silence and we, with Argentina, worship her with affection.
At the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, art transcends history and truth. Go with an open heart and it will overwhelm you.
Evita.Through July 2 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University.Tickets: $25-$72. Information: 610-282-9455 or pashakespeare.org