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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Evita' a visual and vocal feast

Ronald L. Brown and Anna Eilinsfeld star in 'Evita' [Flat Rock Playhouse photo] Ronald L. Brown and Anna Eilinsfeld star in 'Evita' [Flat Rock Playhouse photo]

In the dazzling "Evita," the Flat Rock Playhouse opens the heart of its summer season on the Main Stage. A bold leap from the high dive, the show makes a helluva splash.

The show has every element of a big Broadway show, no surprise since the Playhouse has cast Broadway actors in addition to local company ensemble players and a handful of YouTheatre performers. How blessed the local children are to play in such a splendid production.
Based on the life of Eva Peron, the operatic showcase of voice and dance tells the story of the ambitious and gifted girl from a small town in the country who uses her passion — sometimes in the bedroom — and her voice, as an early radio star, to rise quickly.
"I have always lived in freedom," the real Eva Duarte Peron said in an interview as a young adult. "Like the birds, I have always liked the free air of the forests. I have not even been able to tolerate that servitude that comes with being in your parents' house or the town our birth."
"Evita" explores the drama and complexity of one of the most revered women of the mid-20th century against Argentina's volatile politics and economic ups and downs on either end of World War II. Although there's no doubt she uses her gift for self-promotion and exploits her own physical attributes to reach the top, Evita also has a natural connection to the common folks whose roots she shares. The people love Evita.
Evita's death in July 1952 opens the show. Black and white news clips show thousands of Argentinians mourning her death, at age 33.
Anna Eilinsfeld, in her Flat Rock Playhouse debut, appears on stage as the young Eva Duarte, and we right away find out that Miss Eilinsfeld has the vocal chops to carry the show, which tells the story through 28 songs and many dance numbers.
Dance is another highlight of "Evita," directed and choreographed by Richard J. Hinds, who owns a long list of Broadway and national touring credits. The show contains the familiar "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" plus a range of other songs from solemn requiem to rock'n'roll raucous.
Ronald L. Brown, a veteran performer who also debuts on the Rock, reprises the role of Juan Peron, a strong military leader who is tamed and at times amused by Evita. "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," Evita sings, and there would be no "Evita" 60 years after her death if that were not emphatically true.
The ensemble performance of "A New Argentina" ends Act I with a new-day feel of optimism. Yet we know that Evita's arc has a zenith and decline. Although the foundation she creates to help her countrymen is a big success, the military brass that surrounds Juan Peron is not so taken with her influence. As Che Guevara, Charlie Brady narrates, also musically. He  gives us a skeptic's interpretation of Evita's rise and tactics. "And the Money Kept Rolling In" hints that all is not perfectly straight in Buenos Aires.
The nine-piece orchestra plays without rest, delivering the sound of an ensemble five times its numbers (and overcoming the last-minute replacement of the original music director, who had to leave town for a family emergency). I can only imagine the calories drummer Paul Babelay burns in the eight-show-a-week schedule — especially the two-a-days.
"Evita" introduces the Playhouse audience to numerous new faces (and voices). Five of the top-billed actors are making their debut. (Many are cast in "Les Miserables" too.)
If there were such a thing as Tony awards for regional theater, I imagine Miss Eilinsfeld would surely be nominated, and so would costume designer Janine McCabe. "Colors!" my notes say, for the vivid Latin kaleidoscope of costumes. I lost count of Evita's costume changes. The scene that transforms the First Lady from a slip to haute couture for her European tour proved that dressing can be as senuously performed as undressing.

The costumes, lighting and the set splendidly complement the musical and visual feast.
"Evita" so far is selling well, as evidenced by the near sellout Saturday night and my conversations with box office folks.
Anyone who wants to spend an enjoyable and moving two hours ought not miss this sensational mix of history, drama and music.

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YouTheatre cast:

The YouTheatre children ensemble (split cast) is made up of Lily Bates, Sophia Bradshaw, Margaret Butler, Louise Cummins (soloist), Michelle Foster, Alex harrelson, Emily Holbert, Kaitlin Rose Jencks, Clarke MacDonald, Ava Moss, Laura Packer, Kaia Sage Pelz, Clancy Penny, Samantha Penny, Ellie Stout, Luke Umphlett.

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"Evita" plays through June 30 at the Flat Rock Playhouse. For tickets call 828.693.0731 or go to Playhouse tickets.