From revamped intro to takedowns of macho culture, Drury Lane keeps ‘Evita’ fresh

Glittering, provocative staging of the popular musical feels eerily of-the-moment.

SHARE From revamped intro to takedowns of macho culture, Drury Lane keeps ‘Evita’ fresh
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Michelle Aravena stars in “Evita” as Eva Peron, married to Argentine President Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin, right) and questioned by the skeptical Che (Richard Bermudez).

Brett Beiner

At nearly 45 years old, “Evita” shows little signs of aging in the glittering, provocative staging director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has created for Oakbrook Terrace’s Drury Lane Theatre. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice track Eva Duarte’s meteoric rise from impoverished childhood to Argentina’s First Lady, concluding the loosely biographical story with Eva’s death in 1952. But even though “Evita” ends in the distant past, Dodge’s staging feels eerily of-the-moment. And under Valerie Maze’s music direction, the lush, intricate score has never sounded better.

‘Evita’

Evita review

When: Through March 20

Where: Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Tickets: $59 - $74

Run time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Info: (630) 530-0111, DruryLaneTheatre.com


Dodge has changed both the first and the final scenes that bookend the show. Traditionally, “Evita” opens in a movie theater, the film halted for a news bulletin announcing the death of Eva Peron, “Evita” according to the affectionate nickname bestowed on her by the masses. The audience’s first glimpse of Evita is usually as she’s being borne in a casket to the thumping strains of a dirge.

Dodge begins in a tango hall, the dancers’ limbs twining around each other like snakes. Evita (Michelle Aravena in a powerhouse performance) doesn’t make her first entrance in a coffin. Instead, she enters in that resplendent white dress, her arms arced toward the heavens in an image that’s become a shorthand for the show. It’s a bold, captivating and startling way to begin.

From there, “Evita” fills in the bullet points of Eva’s life: Her father had another, much wealthier family. When he died, they ordered Eva and her mother be “kept out of sight” at the funeral. Dodge shows the impact of the rejection through the eyes of “Young Evita” (a deeply expressive Nina Poulimas), leading the audience to make the connection between Eva’s childhood trauma and her politically astute connection with the working class.

By 15, Eva is hardened enough to seduce a mediocre tango player (an appropriately oily Paul Aguirre) and follow him to Buenos Ares where — per Rice and Webber — she sleeps her way into acting jobs, radio hosting gigs and eventually the grand prize, political up-and-comer Gen. Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin, as sinister as he is charismatic).

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The trauma endured by young Evita (Nina Poulimas, left) helps the grown-up Evita (Michelle Aravena, right) relate to the working class.

Brett Beiner

Peron becomes president in no small thanks to Eva’s galvanizing presence and nerves of steel. It would be a great love story had the two not been fascists. Peron’s thoughts on voting — that having to win a majority is “inconvenient” and “there are other ways of establishing authority” — throw the dictatorial tendencies of his military regime into stark relief.

So does Che (Richard Bermudez), the only one on stage who confronts Evita with the fact that under her leadership, Argentina floundered. Che circles Evita like a hornet, constantly reminding her that instead of helping or empowering the country’s poor, she merely charmed them.

Webber’s score demands a lot from the triumvirate of Che, Evita and Juan, and each of them is more than up to the task at Drury Lane. Bermudez’s Che is like an angry rock god, turning “And the Money Kept Rollin’ In” into an electrifying, sonic snarl that stops the show and could fill an arena. Aravena’s performance is both steely-eyed and heart-breaking, the latter when she’s pragmatically sleeping her way to the top or emptying the coffers of her “Foundation,” the former when she remembers the scars of childhood.

MacLaughlin and Aravena have a crackling chemistry between them and it’s never more palpable than when Evita first takes the microphone at one of Peron’s campaign rallies. You can see both of them simultaneously realizing how powerful they are together. Dodge also emphasizes Evita’s threat to the machismo culture of Peron’s military-backed government. When they spit that Evita’s a “bitch” and a “slut” in “Peron’s Latest Flame,” the men are doing push-ups. For “The Art of the Possible,” they’re in a drum line.

“Evita” usually ends with a perplexing line about how her body disappeared for years, setting the audience up with a cliffhanger that’s never resolved. Dodge just lops the line off. We end where we started, in the tango hall where Evita is dead, but the scorching impact of her life goes on.

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