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Juan Chioran as Juan Peron and Chilina Kennedy as Eva Peron in Evita.

David Hou

2.5 out of 4 stars

Evita

  • Lyrics by Tim Rice
  • Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • Directed by Gary Griffin Starring Chilina Kennedy
  • At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.

When it comes down to it, the success of any production of the rock opera Evita rises or falls with its Evita.

Chilina Kennedy has in recent years earned a star reputation playing a variety of innocents and airheads in musicals from West Side Story to Wonderful Town at Stratford and before that the Shaw Festival.

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Unfortunately, her too-earnest characterization of Argentina's former first lady Eva Perón mostly misses the mark.

Kennedy certainly has the right diminutive stature to play "Little Eva," which is what Evita means, and she is a glittering presence with an often powerful voice.

But whether due to overly understated direction by Gary Griffin or a simple case of miscasting, her performance lacks that "touch of star quality" that she sings of in the song Buenos Aires. Her Eva is sweet but not sexy, charming but not crafty. While her vulnerability is clear, her vanity is not. She almost seems to stumble her way to the top, despite what the biting lyrics tell us of her ego and ambition - Kennedy only gives us a partial portrait of this complex figure.

There have always been differing opinions about Eva Perón, of course. In this 1978 musical biography, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice play good-cop, bad-cop with the low-born actress who rose to become the wife of Argentine president Juan Perón and, after her death, be proclaimed Spiritual Leader of the Nation; an advocate for the poor who fattened Swiss bank accounts with money from the public purse.

In lush, romantic songs like Don't Cry for Me Argentina, Lloyd Webber's score flatters her legend, but Rice's satirical lyrics undercut her with reality. Our narrator for this episodic musical is Che, played by an animated and intense Josh Young, who really drives this production. On the day of Eva's Diana- or Michael Jackson-sized funeral, he asks us to put our passions aside and consider the politics and propaganda behind the icon.

For better or worse, passion remains almost entirely on the shelf thereafter in Griffin's smart but austere production, which takes place on a cold, industrial-looking set designed by Douglas Paraschuk. The power and heat of Latin American populism is something we only hear about here rather than experience firsthand.

The Argentine upper class and military, who are opposed to Evita for reasons snobbish and misogynistic, are better represented thanks in part to Tracey Flye's constrained choreography.

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As general-turned-president Juan Peron, Juan Chioran cuts a commanding figure, ruthless but highly intelligent; here his defeat of his military rivals in the song The Art of the Possible is depicted through a poker game, his winning hands projected on the set above him. Without strong sexual chemistry between him and Kennedy's Eva, the production suggests that their affair was always guided primarily by realpolitik.

As an unnamed mistress of Peron, Josie Marasco dampens eyes with her rendition of Another Suitcase in Another Hall - it's one of the oddest aspects of this episodic musical that the most moving tune of the evening goes to a character who comes and goes in an early scene.

Musical director Rick Fox takes an aggressive approach to the score, creating an exciting, edgy sound. At the same time, however, every word of the lyrics is crisply pronounced.

Indeed, there's nothing unclear about Griffin's production. But with Evita's charisma kept at a distance, the show appeals almost entirely to the head rather than the heart. There's no danger of crying here, Argentina.

Evita runs at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Oct. 31.

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