Arts & Leisure

No crying over this excellent “Evita”

KALINDA GRAY as Eva and Steve deForest as Juan Peron in Golden West College’s production of “Evita” (GWC photo).

By Thom deMartino

   Progressive feminist, or master manipulator? Saint to the downtrodden, or conwoman with a taste for the finer things? Love for the common man and woman, or lust for power?
   Decades after her premature passing, questions still swirl around who actress turned Argentinian First Lady Eva Peron really was: both in divining her motivations, and the icon and symbol she became – a much more complex portrait than it would appear at first glance.
   Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legendary Broadway hit “Evita” has come to Golden West College for a limited time, and the Martie Ramm-directed musical is just as multi-layered and fascinatingly contradictory as its subject.
   Even the casting is remarkable – not one, but two leading ladies, Kalinda Gray and Ally Teeples, interchange nightly as they portray the influential Argentinian star (since the numerous songs and incredibly high notes can strain the performers’ voices.) The story begins, technically, at the end: in 1952, as citizens of the country who sit at a movie showing let out bereaved cries of grief when they learn that the First Lady has passed. The people mourn “Santa Evita” – while from the sidelines comes cynical commentary from Ché (Patrick Rowley), a revolutionary and the mercurial narrator of the tale of a woman’s rise from the gutter to the heights of power.
   Flashing back to the past, we see her anger and oaths at the middle class, who spurned her father and her family: she’s determined to find her way up the social ladder. Eva’s initial opportunity presents itself in the form of crooner Agustin Magaldi (Brigham Hughes) – when the singer plays on her feelings for him, and she uses the opportunity to leave with him for the big city, Buenos Aires. Once the infatuation ends for Magaldi, Eva immediately pursues her dreams of stardom, working her way higher and higher up the showbiz ladder, through passing relationships with increasingly powerful industry players.
   Meanwhile, a right-wing military coup in the country has catapulted the charismatic Colonel Juan Perón (Steve De Forest) to power; when he crosses paths with Eva at a benefit concert for earthquake victims, the magnetism between the two is undeniable – as is her political acumen, suggesting how her presence in his life will reinforce his popularity with the common people (in a persuasive, seductive number, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You”.)  The colonel proceeds to immediately abandon his mistress (played with wounded innocence by Maggie Underwood), who’s left in the cold by the whirlwind breakup: after which, he and Eva begin consolidating their power – to the displeasure of the military men serving under Perón.
   As her influence grows, her flame burns brighter — becoming a question of how long that intensity can be maintained, and at what cost?
   “Evita” is a hypnotic spectacle to behold: beautifully choreographed numbers featuring the entire ensemble as they play the Argentinian people (some portray the military. or the Argentinian upper class), with stellar acting by the extended cast. There are moments throughout the production that stay with the viewer long after the curtain falls — such as the touching intimacy between Juan and Eva, in a relationship once contrived but now very tangible, deep, and real; or the wry, comedic and sardonic commentary by Ché.
   De Forest is suave and charming, with great gravitas as the colonel; and Ché, as the voice of the common man, revolutionary, almost a trickster character, is marvelously and gleefully embodied by Rowley.

KALINDA GRAY as Eva Peron in “Evita” at GWC.

But there is no question that the true stars of the production are the actresses bringing to life the titular persona of the show: while this reporter did not have the opportunity to witness both performances, the Kalinda Gray-helmed one witnessed was a remarkable and breathtaking experience. The role is doubtlessly both vocally and physically taxing, and songs such as “Rainbow High” and “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” both dazzle and deeply move the viewer, as does her portrayal of the enigmatic and inspirational First Lady.

   Golden West College’s production of “Evita” is showing for only a few more performances at Mainstage Theater: a gripping, fascinating story of a complex woman, the country she inspired, and the iconic legend she became.
  “Evita.” Kalinda Grey/Ally Teeples, Patrick Rowley and Steve De Forest star in this powerful and popular musical retelling of the life of Argentina’s inspirational First Lady. Now playing through May 6 at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets available through the box office at 714-895-8150, x1 or at www.gwctheater.com.

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