I often wonder if casual patrons of the musical Evita appreciate just how incredibly difficult the show is to perform. Andrew Lloyd Webber's eclectic music styles — classical, ballad, Latin, rock — lightning-fast tempo changes and sometimes atonal, non-melodic sing-throughs, paired with Tim Rice's information-packed lyrics, are a challenge to performers and listeners alike. It's a show that may take more than one viewing to comprehend.
The production at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill playing through Sunday, March 19, goes a long way toward making that easier, thanks to several knockout performances by director Dixie Lay's superb cast, dynamic accompaniment by music director Carol Brown's orchestra, fine choral work by a first-rate ensemble, period-perfect costumes by Eileen Bernard and (mostly) appropriate dances by choreographer Sydney Campo, plus a great set, lighting and sound design and execution by a close-knit team of Stage West stalwarts.
Foremost in the endeavor are Jennifer Agnelli, playing the title role of the controversial First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death at age 33 in 1952, and Jay Garcia as Che, the commentator/narrator. These two are on stage most of the time and are in great measure responsible for maintaining the timing and pace of the show. Both do exceptional jobs, having mastered the vocal gymnastics required to do the roles justice.
Agnelli is a seasoned professional who has performed with Broadway national tours, and it shows in her every utterance and move — graceful, controlled and emotional, her mezzo-soprano hitting every note with precision. Her Don't Cry For Me Argentina and Lament are heartbreaking. Her acting captures the vibrancy and passion of María Eva Duarte de Perón as she moves from being an illegitimate slum kid to becoming a famous actress and radio personality to, finally, the most powerful woman in the country, both as the wife of the president and for being herself, revered to this day by the great majority of Argentinians.
Garcia is doing his first lead role, but you would never know it. He is as confident as any old pro, striding around the stage, relaxing on the stairs, his body language on point, his face a mix of cynicism and admiration for Evita, his voice right on the money in Oh What a Circus, Good Night and Thank You, And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out), and others. Both actors deserved the ovations they received opening night.
They are nicely supported by Brady Lay as the ambivalently ambitious Juan Perón — soldier, politician, lover and president; Lainey Poulis as Perón's mistress, her broken heart evident as she sings the sad Another Suitcase in Another Hall, and Charles Kleber as Augstin Magaldi, supposedly Evita's first love interest (though that's disputed by historians), crooning On This Night of a Thousand Stars and cautioning the naive young Evita to Beware of the City.
And kudos to the 20-member ensemble and their vocal coach. (Was it music director Brown?) They mastered the demanding Spanish lyrical chanting and moved about the stage smoothly, blending with the action and punctuating the most dramatic moments. The angelic voices of the children in Santa Evita were a joy to hear. The adagios by the uncredited couple during Act One set a romantic mood for the burgeoning romance between Evita and Juan.
The flaws are few — an over-enthusiastic percussionist at some points and a post-modern/contemporary dance sequence that doesn't seem to fit with the culture and era and goes on too long, even as Evita sings in the background.
That said, Stage West's Evita is a pleasure to hear and watch, showcasing the extraordinary talents of Broadway tour veteran Agnelli, heralding the elevation of Garcia as a candidate for any lead role in any show, and displaying a very impressive directorial debut for Lay.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Carol Brown was the music director for Stage West Community Playhouse's production of Evita. The music director's name was reported incorrectly in a review published March 17.