Theater can be an immersive, intimate experience. I was reminded of this during the opening scenes of “Evita,” which just opened at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, playing inside the Castle Theater. The lights fade to black and suddenly, a giant sized screen lowers and plays a black and white movie. Actors are scattered throughout the theater, in character and costumed, playing theater goers in Buenos Aires of 1952. The film stops playing, a devastating announcement is made and the actors portray the horror of learning the news that Eva Peron has died. These early moments, as riveting as everything that follows, bring to mind how theater can be a “happening,” a shared sensation of engaging your emotions while one’s sense of the “real” is put on hold.
From the very beginning to the final curtain, this MAPA production declares it’s go-for-broke, giant-sized intentions and never looks back. Community theater is rarely this polished and professional, due in large part to the hugely ambitious vision of director David C. Johnston. Last summer, gave us his Broadway-sized, unforgettable “Miss Saigon” (the year before that was his celebrated “Les Miserables”). Well, it’s summer 2015 and, again, he’s pulled off a miracle.
“Evita” is a near-dialog-free rock opera, portraying the rise of Eva Duarte (played by Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom) from an actress to the wife of Argentine Colonel Juan Peron (played by Frances Tau’a). Eva’s star gradually eclipses her husband’s, as she ascends in power and public prominence as the “voice of Argentina.” He journey is commented on by Che (played by Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos), a one-man Greek chorus who both supports and criticizes the Peron’s.
Although the show, conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1976, portrays Argentine politics from the early 20th century, the tale still takes hold and offers rich, cynical insight into the facade of politics. Reflecting the divisive way in which many still regard the subject, “Evita” is both sympathetic and critical of Juan and Eva.
The staging is magnificent, as giant set pieces, masses of actors and the leads all reconfigure themselves from scene to scene with stunning fluidity. Dan Hayes’ sets are amazing, filling the massive stage space but providing intricate stair cases and platforms that provide a literal and figurative platform, suggesting Eva’s political trajectory. Andre Morissette’s choreography is, likewise, a marvel of creative movement and (I mean this in the most complimentary sense) well-plotted crowd control. The full-bodied orchestra meets every demand of the score and Johnston creates a flurry of beautiful images, crafting stage pictures that burn into the mind.
Having Hawaii’s top female vocalist in the title role, decades after her remarkable performance in the 1992 production at the Historic Iao Theater, presents not only star power but the novelty of a seasoned actress/singer returning to an early career milestone. The question of can-she-still-do-it is answered immediately: Yes, and what a privilege to behold.
Gilliom’s presence is so strong, she even makes you take notice in the moments when she’s perfectly still, particularly the haunting, grand and oddly intimate moment that closes the show. Gilliom shows us Eva as a canny ladder climber, a political figure both poised and temperamental and, finally, a fragile, worn-out and never more alive leader, who died way too soon at the age of 33. She displays a vitality in her scenes of Eva in her younger years and a chilling reserve as Eva becomes more aware of her power as a public speaker. Gilliom, who has a killer, traffic-stopping smile and a gorgeous voice, hits every demanding dramatic and musical note and gives her many fans a performance they truly need to witness.
Aricayos is perfection as Che, as his sublime vocal range and radiant charisma effortlessly fills the Castle Theater. His depiction of Che reflects an Argentine Everyman, not Che Guevara (a choice some productions, not unwisely, have taken). Despite how hard he works, Aricayos makes it look so easy (the sign of any great, seasoned stage performer). Here is an actor who has shined so brightly in supporting roles and absolutely kills in “Evita,” it’s about time he either becomes the headliner or gets the one man show he deserves.
The character of Juan Peron can easily get upstaged by his wife, as much as Peron did in real life. Tau’a, who portrays Peron as a suave opportunist, finds the heart in a tough-to-crack role. His chemistry with Gilliom is evident and Tau’a evokes Peron’s unceasingly reserve with ease. Tau’a is especially touching in his final scenes, particularly the number “She Is a Diamond,” where we see the veneer of both Peron’s begin to crack.
Danielle Delaunay’s one scene as Peron’s Mistress is dynamite, as Delaunay’s beautiful rendering of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is suitably crushing. Joey Schumacher conveys the sleazy allure of Magaldi and his rendering of “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” is sensational.
There are so many talented, hard-working dancers and performers in the ensemble cast (the program reveals over 60 performers). Their carefully placed and considered character work comes across less like actors spread around the stage and more like a small community, representing each narrative facet and adding to the musical’s massive scope.
The act one closer, “A New Argentina,” is a knockout. So is “The Rainbow Tour” and “The Money Came Rollin’ In (and Out).” The “Waltz For Eva and Che” is a personal favorite, as we see these dynamic figures alone on stage, sizing one another up and challenging their perspectives of each other.
The few problems I have with the production come from the source material. The first act is so heavy with establishing characters, settings and key story developments, much of it flies by without everything registering. “The Art of the Possible” is a problematic number- even with thoughtful, imaginative staging (portraying politics as a blend of handshakes and eliminations), the song is a dud.
The second act is, for lack of a better word, perfect, with one breathtaking number after another. The “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” number is one for the ages. A swirl of movement takes us to the famous balcony, where Gilliom makes a jaw-dropping entrance (in just one of many beautiful costumes by Kenneth Peter Lee). Just as she did in 1992, Gilliom’s performing the number left me transfixed.
It’s initially strange to hear Gilliom sing, “You Must Love Me,” the Oscar winning tune that was never a part of the Broadway show until it was made famous by the 1996 film adaption. The song is so closely identified with Madonna but Gilliom, movingly, makes it her own.
Make no mistake, this isn’t just a musical, but a true “happening,” in the way only theater can provide. Not merely a night of theater but a real event, blending great storytelling, soaring music and an impressive collection of local talent, on stage and behind the scenes. Whether you know and love “Evita” or have never seen it, this thrilling production is one to savor.
MAPA LIVE! Presents EVITA plays August 21-30th at the Castle Theater in the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Tickets can be purchased at mauiarts.org or by calling 242-SHOW.