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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Evita’ Returns Better Than Ever : Civic Light Opera’s latest production of the popular musical is the best of the three it has staged.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera’s reprise production of “Evita” is a glossy, energetic affair that admirably captures the cautionary grandeur in this final musical collaboration between lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

No surprise here--the production reunites several veterans of past “Evitas,” including director Mark Lipschutz (who stage-managed three national tours), Valerie Perri (who’s been playing the title role since she was 22), and, as the opposing figure of Che, Tim Bowman (who played the role in the 1979 Los Angeles production).

Lipschutz’ direction faithfully re-creates the original Hal Prince staging that was so integral to the original London and New York productions--the backdrop of projected photos, the round of musical chairs between the generals that signifies Juan Peron’s ascent to power, the metal scaffolding from which Evita receives the adulation of the masses.

As Eva, Perri wears the role like skin, and somehow makes us feel compassion for this one-time cabaret singer who, as the wife of Juan Peron, became a selfish, hard-hearted despot exploiting the dreams and plundering the wealth of the Argentine people.

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We wait in vain for Eva to say something intelligent or insightful, but the secret of her success remains pure charisma coupled with a bottomless appetite for power.

Her icy character is established early on, when we see her handing out autographed photos to her discarded lovers, assembly-line style (“Good Night and Thank You”). Even her first meeting with Peron (a very believable David Wasson) is steeped in the mutual admiration between two sharks as they sing “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.”

In the dynamic chemistry between Perri and Wasson, Eva emerges as the catalyst for the couple’s increasing consolidation of power. But in the end, we pity her as she struggles with the cancer that would end her life at age 33 and agonizes over the irony of having triumphed over her enemies only to be “defeated by my own weak body.”

The willingness of a democratic society to abdicate its freedoms and embrace Eva’s excesses is the ominous legacy of her career.

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Even Bowman’s Che (a character invented by Hal Prince to give a unified voice to Eva’s opponents) is torn by his love-hate relationship to all that Eva represents.

Her behavior may have been outrageous and reprehensible, but there’s a compelling vitality to Eva (brilliantly established in an early dance number contrasting her fiery ensemble with a group of stiff, hollow British aristocrats).

With lyrics that speak to unsettling realities rather than the traditional escapism of music theater, Tim Rice crafted a powerful commentary on the role of glamour in politics, and inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to compose his most accomplished score. Unlike the interchangeable tunes in subsequent Webber shows, the songs in “Evita” are as tightly woven with plot and character as the staging.

Besides the perennial favorite, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” the SBCLO production boasts a particularly rousing version of “A New Argentina” to close the first act.

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This is the third and best “Evita” we’ve seen from the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. In 1987, the show marked a turning point in the company’s transition from community theater to professional status, and a limited run in 1990 broke box office records at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium--though with Lipschutz and Perri returning from the Oxnard production, the improvements here are more in the way of refinements than major differences.

God knows the last thing we want in a musical is something to think about--but if we must, this tight, stylish, and striking production continues to be the SBCLO’s most substantial ticket.

Details

* WHAT: “Evita”

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* WHEN: Through May 22, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

* WHERE: Granada Theatre, 1216 State St. in Santa Barbara.

* COST: $18-$29.50.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (800) 366-6064.

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