Lights up, and the spotlight throws our attention to an Argentinian flag draped over a makeshift coffin. The bright blue, gold and white backdrop starkly contrasts with the hordes of black-clothed figures onstage, weeping and shaking in grief. The mourners begin to chant “Evita,” more and more quickly, until the music swells and the lights bathe the stage in red, a dramatic and foreboding sign of the provocative tale to follow.
Last weekend, the student cast of “Evita” took the stage of the Barclay Theatre, performing a concert staging
of the 1976 Andrew Lloyd Weber creation. Directed by Travis Kendrick with musical direction by Daniel Gary Busby, “Evita” is the final show of UCI Drama’s 2015-16 season.
“Evita” chronicles the true story of the life of Eva Peron, a girl born in poverty who found a life of fame and power as an actress, musical artist and the First Lady of Argentina. After following her first love to Buenos Aires and gradually gaining notoriety for her relationships with powerful men, Eva crosses paths with Colonel Juan Peron, a military figure whose political power was growing by the minute. Eva, recognizing the potential benefits of this relationship, then convinces her new beau to pursue the Argentine presidency, a goal he later accomplishes.
Eva is adored as the First Lady and starts a foundation to benefit the descamisados (the poor and impoverished of Argentina); the story implies that the foundation practiced money laundering, a move that sends the nation into an economic downturn. We discover that Eva is sick and that, despite her mission to become Argentina’s Vice President, her body is unable to keep up with her ambition. The play ends as it begins: at Eva’s grave, with the people of Argentina mourning their lost matriarch.
UCI Drama’s rendition of the powerful tale was nothing short of extraordinary. Luzma Ortiz, the undergraduate musical theatre major in the role of “Evita,” entirely steals the show; her depiction of Eva straddles the dual understandings of the controversial First Lady, as both a saint of the people and a power-hungry starlet. Ortiz’s powerhouse vocals and charismatic onstage presence light up the stage, inciting both animosity and sympathy towards her character. The all-star cast doesn’t end at Ortiz: Giovanni Munguia’s convincing performance as the antagonizing narrator Che Guevara brings a liveliness to his interactions with Eva. Joseph Abrego, depicting Augustin Magaldi, Eva’s first love, has a flirtatious charm that is only amplified by his warm and capable voice.
The supporting cast impresses as well; the ensemble shines with sharp vocals and choreography, especially the intricate footwork of the military men in the number “The Art of the Possible.” Despite their immense number, the 63-person ensemble remains extremely clean and cohesive.
What was most striking was the nature of the staging: while billed as a concert staging of “Evita,” the performance feels all-encompassing, much more than just semi-staged. The only convention of concert staging maintained by this production was the inclusion of the ensemble onstage throughout the entire performance; even so, their presence alludes to the always-watching eyes of the Argentine people, and adds to the audience’s perception of the stress and constant surveillance experienced by Eva.
Closing the 2015-16 UCI Drama season, themed “Care, Cure, Corruption,” Evita portrays a dubious figure of corruption, and asks the question: How powerful is legacy, and how persuasive can it be?