In her shining moment performing the signature song of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Evita (★★★☆☆), Shereen Pimentel, in the title role, declaims not from a balcony of the Presidential Palace, but surrounded by risers of flowers stacked to the rafters.
A luminous rose among a field of lesser blooms, Eva “Evita” Péron, addresses her nation to the triumphant strains of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Indeed it’s a triumphant moment for the Shakespeare Theatre’s production, directed by Sammi Cannold, building on her staged concert presentation of Evita for New York City Center Encores! in 2019, and a subsequent American Repertory Theatre production in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past summer.
Finessing the First Lady’s appeal to her people, Pimentel’s voice is at its loveliest on “Don’t Cry,” while Jason Sherwood’s scenic design provides a gorgeous visual representation of Evita’s lofty status amongst the Argentinian masses.
The stirring number reinforces the tune’s status as the crown jewel of one of Webber’s best-known scores, with a polished, patient rendition that belies the effort to deliver all an audience might hope for or want from a hit. Other gems in the score don’t gleam with the same care and intention, although the performers, backed by music director Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh’s 16-piece orchestra, have their moments.
The warm baritone of Caesar Samayoa, as Presidente Juan Péron, booms confidently through the droll game of musical chairs depicting the military colonel’s rise to power. The last man standing — or seated — Péron soon joins ambitious then-actress Eva Duarte for a seductive “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” in which the pair’s hearts and ambitions become so fatefully intertwined.
Samayoa and Pimentel’s voices also intertwine persuasively on the song, as a pair of superb dancers from the ensemble perform a steamy tango evoking the joining of this historic union. Rudely pushed aside by the power couple, Péron’s Mistress contemplates her future, too, in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” absolutely a musical highlight of this production as rendered by Naomi Serrano, reprising her role from the A.R.T. run, as are most of the cast.
As the story’s snide narrator Che, Omar Lopez-Cepero brings more dry humor and down-to-earth humanity to the role than convincing vocal power, particularly on the rock-musical passages of numbers like “Oh What a Circus,” or in the Latin rhythm-spiced “And the Money Kept Rolling In.” Webber’s melodies are there, but sound pinched.
Pimentel, on the other hand, lets her vocals fly too freely at times, especially at her upper range, resulting in a strident stretch in “The Art of the Possible,” in which radio star Eva, “speaking as one of the people,” practically screams the people’s desire for a new government.
Dramatically speaking, Pimentel’s vocals and appealing presence generally don’t add significant depth to Rice and Webber’s portrayal of Evita’s relationship to the Argentinian people and the singular way she fascinated her public, while enraging her enemies. The portrayal as written is fairly thin, in that it credits Eva’s ambition, but not any talent beyond connecting to crowds and choosing the right conquests while sleeping her way to the Presidential Palace.
Cannold, with Sherwood’s scenery and a notable, eye-catching assist from lighting designer Bradley King, finds myriad ways of visualizing that heavily reductive biography, as in the vivid shadowplay illustrating the lyrics of “Oh What a Circus.” Or, the powerful opening image of Eva’s empty ball gown hovering over a field of flowers as mourners gather beneath to pay their respects to La Santa Peronista.
The sinner who concocted her own sainthood, Eva Péron continues to fascinate, though, as evidenced by even the best that Rice and Webber can offer here, we might not ever truly capture in one show even half of what her life and fame encompassed.
Evita runs through Oct. 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $225. Call 202-547-1122, or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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