THEATER REVIEW : 'Evita' Staging Lacks Her Daring : Stage: Despite a strong singing cast and good performances, the Starlight production never once takes a chance on surprising.

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A poor but ambitious girl sleeps her way to a modest acting career. She wins the role of her life when she marries a man whose rise to power means everything--to her.

Coldly, shrewdly, calculatingly, she makes sure he becomes president.

No, this is not Kitty Kelley's biography of Nancy Reagan. It's "Evita," the musical version of the life of Eva Duarte de Peron by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

The Starlight Musical Theatre production plays under the stars--and planes--at the Starlight Bowl through Sept. 1. It's a competent piece of work with a strong singing cast, and it delivers the song everyone waits for: "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," sung by Derin Altay as Evita.

But the show as a whole lacks fire--a deadly problem for a story that is all about what Evita calls her "star quality."

Blame it in part on a production that, under the direction of Don and Bonnie Ward, emphasizes delivery of the expected and never once dares to surprise.

Blame it on a show that, although still a crowd pleaser, has not aged as well as it should.

Call it a docu-musical or docu-opera (as opposed to docu-drama), "Evita" was a fresh idea when it wowed Broadway just over a decade ago, winning seven Tonys, including one for best musical in 1980.

Eva Peron's life was ripe for dramatization. Eva, nicknamed Evita, began life poor and illegitimate, but very ambitious. She married Col. Juan Peron, helped him win the presidency, and became the most powerful woman in Argentina by age 27. She was revered by the lower classes, who saw her as their champion, and she died of cancer in 1952 at 33.

Today, the story doesn't feel as fresh, having recently been eclipsed by endless media stories of other famous women's determined journeys from humble beginnings to power and fame: Nancy Reagan, Leona Helmsley, the Duchesses of Windsor, past and present.

And the cleverness of Rice's writing has lost some of its force over the years. Using Che Guevera as the cynical narrator, in much the way he used Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar," Rice shows us Evita's ambition, her ruthlessness, her uncanny knack for touching people's hearts.

But he doesn't tell us what drives her, so Evita, like the Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar," remains an enigma.

The enigma works better in "Jesus Christ Superstar" than here.

Still, you do get the classic numbers classically done.

You get "Evita" (Altay was one of the original Broadway Evitas) in her glittery white dress throwing herself into the showstopper: "Don't Cry for Me Argentina"--the show's signature.

You get the scene with Juan Peron (David Wasson, who exudes authority and power) literally playing musical chairs with his generals while singing "The Art of the Possible."

You get the poignant "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," a song of lost love sung exquisitely by Peron's mistress (Beverly Ward), whom Evita boots out on her own way to Peron's bed.

You get a funny portrayal of the self-important singer, Magaldi (Sal Mistretta), who ends up famous not for his voice but for being the first lover Evita used to advance her career.

You even get an ensemble of very cute and talented children holding candles and singing "Santa Evita" to show how Evita was a saint in their eyes.

Carrying the show is Tim Bowman as a strong and powerful Che, the Argentina-born revolutionary whom Rice and Lloyd Webber use to narrate the story of Evita, even though Che may never have met her in real life.

Bowman captures the ambivalence of a man who admires Evita for what she did for the poor, even as he remains righteously angry at what she did not do--what she only pretended to do--and at the lies she told as she skimmed off money for her own private Swiss bank account from the top of her charities.

The musical direction by Lloyd Cooper supports the singers well. Ken Holamon designed the nicely detailed sets, Gregory Allen Hirsch the careful lighting, Thomas G. Marquez the appropriate costumes.

A quibble: Running unidentified overhead projections of slides of the Perons, of Argentina and of historical events during the course of the play was more distracting than helpful.

And a complaint: With this show, Starlight continues to establish its reputation as a theater that takes no chances, stretches no boundaries, makes no leaps. This is an "Evita" that doesn't aim for the heights--the one thing no one could accuse Eva, herself, of being guilty of.

"EVITA"

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Directors, Don and Bonnie Ward. Set design, Ken Holamon. Lighting, Gregory Allen Hirsch. Costumes, Thomas G. Marquez. Sound, Bill Lewis. Musical director/conductor, Lloyd Cooper. With Derin Altay, David Wasson, Tim Bowman, Sal Mistretta and Beverly Ward. At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, through Sept. 1. At the Starlight Bowl, Balboa Park, 278-TIXS.

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