Director Joe Banno takes a rough and tumble approach to the 1979 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical “Evita,” which is stripped of glitz, but joltingly powerful. The specific talents of the Open Circle Theatre Company, dedicated to artists with disabilities, are expertly integrated in this earthy, impassioned production.
Set in a working-class cabaret, the musical begins with the people receiving the news of the death of Eva Peron, the notorious first lady of Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s whose orchestrated charisma won her the love of the peasants while her husband’s regime stripped the nation of resources and personal freedoms. Their reaction is fervent and heady — an idol, a beloved goddess has died and their grief must be similarly larger than life.
Eva (Amanda Johnson) is then brought to the people — lying in state, her body wrapped in gold cloth and red roses at her throat. In an unearthly voice, she sings a few lines from her signature song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” setting off this musical retrospective of Eva Peron’s life, from illegitimate rube to ruthlessly ambitious actress in Buenos Aires, and finally, to political and cultural icon.
“Evita” depicts the making of a cult heroine without reverence, instead taking a bawdy and impudent, almost rock ‘n’ roll attitude with the material. Much of the sting comes from Mr. Rice’s acerbic lyrics, mainly sung by the character of Che (Rob McQuay), the derisive narrator and commentator. Mr. McQuay uses a wheelchair, and his modes of transportation around the stage — on a golf cart, miniature jeep, rolling bed, cocktail table and garden bench — comprise some of the cleverest tongue-in-cheek moments in the show.
Mr. McQuay’s forceful, smartly biting portrayal of Che is a high point, and he is ably assisted by the balletic athleticism of Warren “Wawa” Snipe’s acting and sign language interpretation.
As Evita, Miss Johnson is luminous and commands the stage with a mixture of chic bravado and a thunderous need to be adored and accepted on a massive scale. She, too, is paired with a sign language interpreter, Roslyn Ward, who plays the youthful spirit of Eva with unaffected effusiveness that is in stark contrast to the older Evita’s calculated charm.
The talking head aspect of President Juan Peron’s (Scott Sedar) image is accentuated by the military precision of his interpreting cast member, Raymont Anderson.
Another place this sort of pairing works beautifully is in the song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” where Eva brusquely kicks out Peron’s mistresses from his bed. Debra Buonaccorsi sings the ballad with a wistful sense of loss, while Tami Lee Satimyer’s signing takes on a more scornful, hardened tone.
“Evita” brashly portrays international politics as show biz performed by con artists, but Mr. Banno’s staging emphasizes the Argentine people. The poor and working class form a character as potent as those in the showier roles — a character that is restless, grasping, and never far from the center of action. The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange assisted with the choreography and the ensemble’s strong, stylized dances recall both the tango and the circular movements of a worker’s strike.
Open Theatre’s production has flaws — the musical transitions are ragged and the modest orchestra sometimes hits sour notes. Yet, the edgy, urgent quality of Mr. Banno’s vision for the venerated musical and the seamless melding of actors of all abilities, makes this an “Evita” of unusual vigor.
WHAT: “Evita,” music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice
WHERE: Open Circle Theatre at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; with 2 p.m. matinees Thursdays and Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 27.
TICKETS:$15 to $30
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS