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Marriott’s ‘Evita’ an enthralling tango through history

Larry Adams (Juan Peron and Hannah Corneau (Eva Peron) star in the Marriott Theatre production of Andrew Lloy Webber's "Evita." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Of all his megahits over the past five decades, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tango-driven 1976 musical “Evita,” with its knife-sharp lyrics by Tim Rice, remains his strongest.

And it’s not just that Argentina, with its enduring inheritance of the Peron era, has continued to experience political and economic turmoil, or that the Castro brothers still hold fast in Cuba, while their long-dead Argentinean-born compadre, Che Guevara — the narrator/commentator in “Evita” — remains a pop culture revolutionary legend.

In fact, with its themes of class warfare, and the tension between the politics of faux populism and socialism, the show —  now in a vividly etched production at Marriot Theatre, where it has been directed and choreographed by Alex Sanchez as if it were one extended tango — it remains astonishingly timely. And its three leading actors — Hannah Corneau (as Eva), Larry Adams (as her husband, Juan Peron) and Austin Lesch (as Che, Eva’s ever-prodding Brechtian nemesis) — bring fresh, intriguing portrayals to their iconic characters, with every member of the ensemble in perfect synchrony with them.

In addition, this production is a reminder of just what a sensational score Webber devised for “Evita,” with everything from a Latin requiem to multiple variations on the tango, poignant ballads, stirring confessionals, seductive power plays and anthems, all rendered expertly here thanks to Ryan T. Nelson’s music direction and conductor Patti Garwood’s fine orchestra.

Austin Lesch plays Che in the Marriott Theatre production of "Evita." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Austin Lesch plays Che in the Marriott Theatre production of “Evita.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

‘EVITA’
Highly recommended
When: Through June 5
Where: Marriott Theatre,
10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $55
Info: (847) 634-0200;
www.MarriottTheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes with one intermission

In purely physical terms, Corneau, a petite but formidable presence with a strong rather than merely pretty face, might well be the most authentic Eva Peron you will ever see. And her pliable, wide-ranging voice can shift from raw and commanding, to richly manipulative (her balcony scene is hypnotic), to softly confiding, with a death scene (“You Must Love Me”) that has never been more movingly rendered. Her innate intelligence is palpable, and she is in full control of the quicksilver emotional shifts that must radiate from her character at every turn. (At certain performances, Samantha Pauly will play Eva, a role that makes fierce vocal demands.)

Chicago veteran Larry Adams gives an absolutely masterful (and vocally superb) performance as Eva’s pliable husband, a military man who would rather luxuriate in exile than become president of Argentina. Yet, like Macbeth, Juan Peron is goaded to power by his ambitious Lady Macbeth — a working-class girl from the provinces determined to show the world she will not be defined by her roots, even as she holds fast to them for political advantage. Together, Corneau and Adams engage in a riveting interpretation rendering of “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” which, in its deftly finessed conversational tone, is a pure power play in the form of seduction.

Hannah Corneau (as Eva Peron) and Larry Adams (Juan Peron), inthe Marriott Theatre production of "Evita." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Hannah Corneau (as Eva Peron) and Larry Adams (Juan Peron), in the Marriott Theatre production of “Evita.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Lesch brings a particularly boyish quality to the role of Che, with his powerful, angry voice and a persona that suggests an educated middle-class guy who has taken up the revolutionary banner. He makes it clear that he can see right through Eva’s hypocritical proclamations of uplift for the poor, and the aura of saintliness that attaches to her as she becomes an aspirational figure for all those who wish to rise, as she did.

Though Eliza Palasz has only one scene and one song — as Peron’s young mistress, who is unceremoniously tossed onto the street by Eva — she leaves a strong imprint on it, and sings the plaintive, resignation-filled “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” with notable simplicity and beauty. David Schlumpf plays Magaldi, the mediocre tango singer who, as Che notes, has gone down in history as the first of a long list of men Eva used to get to where she wanted to go.

Throughout, the ensemble (which includes such performers as Emily Rohm, Anne Gunn, Brianna Borger and James Rank, who often play leading roles) demonstrates superb singing and dancing skills. Sanchez uses a mix of tango and stylized combat to suggest the quest for power among military officers, and finds the perfect movement styles to distinguish the masses from the elite.

Thomas M. Ryan’s collage of window frames, shutters and wrought iron lanterns (bathed in Jesse Klug’s red light) bring an erotic charge to the show’s early scenes, with chandeliers suggesting a shift of lifestyle for the Perons. Nancy Missimi’s costumes stylishly “Christian Dior” Eva, and make perfect operetta-like clowns of the officers.

And of course the moral of the story: Eva Peron may have been “High Flying, Adored,” but she also was dead by the age of 33.

Hannah Corneau as Eva Peron, mocked by the Argentine military in 'Evita," at the Marriott Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Hannah Corneau as Eva Peron, mocked by the Argentine military in “Evita,” at the Marriott Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)