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STAGE REVIEW : The Greener of 2 ‘Evitas’ Has the Fire

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The key to a successful “Evita” is Evita.

The show calls for an actress who can make us feel the passion that fueled Eva Duarte Peron’s meteoric journey from impoverished illegitimacy to become the most powerful woman Argentina had ever known.

The actress must bring the hungry, driven, burning character of Evita to life. This, after all, is the story of a woman born in a shack in a village 150 miles outside Buenos Aires who ended up ruling Argentina--with husband Juan Peron--by the age of 27.

Moonlight Amphitheatre, in a rough-hewn, far from perfect production, brings that story to life in its North County premiere of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical.

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In 1980, the show won seven Tonys, including Best Musical. It’s hard to imagine this particular production being up for any Tonys. And certainly for sheer professionalism in look and dress, or in musical and dance prowess, one should undoubtedly go to the current Starlight Musical Theatre production playing through Sunday at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park.

But to understand what made Evita run, check out the Moonlight show.

Because at Moonlight, that ever-surprising community theater under the stars in Vista, Alicia Irving delivers Evita’s fire.

Aside from Irving’s performance, the production, which continues at Brengle Terrace Park through Sept. 8, has enough flaws to fill an entire review.

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The minimal scenery has a clunky homemade look; the sometimes-clashing costumes are uninspired. The chorus is uneven; the orchestra unsure. The lighting and sound are primitive and the show trails off instead of coming to a dramatic conclusion.

In fact, if professional admission prices were charged, these problems would be inexcusable. But Moonlight costs only $6-$12 a ticket. And, although co-directors Ray Limon and Gary Krinke falter in production values, they have put their energies toward the objective Starlight has lost amid its gloss and glitter: they tell the story as it should be told.

Limon and Krinke were also helped mightily by the talents of Irving, a Los Angeles-based actress, who originally hails from Chula Vista. Irving is so charismatic, she reduces most problems to minor distractions. Her delivery is not nearly as polished as that of Starlight’s Evita, played by Derin Altay, who starred in the part on Broadway. But Irving captures the anger that brings Rice’s caustic lyrics to life.

No matter that she is not even a member of the actors’ union yet, Irving knows how to burn up a stage. From the moment Irving, as Evita, goes after the man who will take her to Buenos Aires as his lover, she lets you know why Evita will rise to power.

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Evita will do whatever it takes to get ahead, because getting ahead is her way of settling a score with her father’s middle-class wife and children, who treated her impoverished mother (his mistress) and her mother’s illegitimate children as if they did not exist.

Ultimately, she settles her score through her love-hate affair with the whole country. She is determined to make everyone pay for her childhood--and yet she wants them to love her at the same time.

Incredibly they do. Because the poor of the country identify with her. Much has been made of the American dream and how America has mythologized rags-to-riches stories. But Eva Duarte Peron proves the tale is universal. In an impoverished country, she became a symbol that a poor girl with nothing could make it to the top.

Even when narrator-revolutionary Che Guevara points out that her success came on the backs of the people, and that she skimmed money for herself from her public charities, the people forgave her. She was their golden dream, their fantasy, their Marilyn Monroe, their Madonna, their royalty, their saint.

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Moonlight does not have the same caliber of supporting players as Starlight, although its Che (Jim Graft--the one guest Equity artist), Juan Peron (Ed Hollingsworth) and Peron’s mistress (Noelle Kenney) are actually surprisingly good.

Kenney, looking young and fragile, does a lovely job with that haunting song about love lost, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Graft, as Che, does not always succeed in matching Irving anger for anger, but he keeps the story moving as a good narrator must. Hollingsworth provides a reliable voice to lean on as Juan Peron, even if the dark, merciless side of Evita’s lover eludes him.

In the best of all possible worlds, the Starlight and Moonlight productions would combine strengths to make one terrific production. Instead, in this world, you can choose between lifeless professionalism at Starlight and inspired but green talent at Moonlight.

Irving makes Moonlight worth the trip.

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“EVITA”

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directors, Ray Limon and Gary Krinke. Choreography, Ray Limon. Musical direction, James R. Cook. Lighting, Mark Sell. Sound, Kenneth Ted Bible. Costumes, Lynda Blais. Stage managers, Coy Lea North and M. Andrew Curry. With Alicia Irving, Jim Graft, Ed Hollingsworth, Mauricio Mendoza and Noelle Kenney. At 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, through Sept. 8. Tickets are $6-$12. At Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista, 724-2110.


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