On Theater: Move over, Madonna — this 'Evita' rules

Over the years, "Evita" has become a tour de force for musical theater actresses such as Patti LuPone and Madonna and even straight dramatic performers like Faye Dunaway.

All three could take a back seat to Caroline Bowman, who sinks her teeth firmly into this tragic historical character in the terrific touring production of "Evita" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

This is an "Evita" that, presumably, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice envisioned when they created the show back in 1976. Director Michael Grandage has unleashed a trio of top-notch performers to tackle this historical masterpiece set in the Argentina of the late 1940s and early '50s.

Webber's soaring musical score and Rice's biting, sardonic lyrics have never been more powerful than in this current version. The production is solid from top to bottom, with some of the richest, most illuminating ensemble work you're likely to see on any stage.

At the center is Bowman's seductive, greedily ambitious peasant girl who sleeps her way to the top of Argentina's military to become the wife of the powerful Gen. Juan Peron and her country's beloved — yet fiercely denigrated — first lady.

Her fiery performance as a dark-haired dynamo in her teenage years, which segues into the more familiar depiction as a cool, calculating blonde bombshell, is masterfully accomplished. And when she sings the show's anthem, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," your eyes may feel a bit damp as well.

Contrasting views of Evita's eminence are offered by the country's leader, Peron (Sean MacLaughlin) and a street-figure everyman called Che (Josh Young), who the producers point out is not meant to be the revolutionary figure Che Guevara. As the former adores and adorns her, the latter scorns her in embittered counterpoint.

Young represents the street people of Buenos Aires, from whom Eva has emerged, and from his first line — "Oh, what a circus," at her funeral — he becomes a persistent thorn in her side. They have just one scene together, a waltz in which they air their frosty views of one another, and Young unmasks his seething resentment of her throughout the show.

MacLaughlin (in a role originated on Broadway by UCI grad Bob Gunton) is more controlled, displaying his true love and affection, particularly when Eva falls ill with cancer. His more brutal side is shown as he rises to power, defeating opponents in wrestling matches rather than the usual musical chairs of past productions.

Only two other characters are given voice. Christopher Johnstone exhibits an overly theatrical flair as the self-aggrandizing singer Magaldi, and Krystina Alabado stings the heart with her poignant solo, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," as Peron replaces her with Eva.

The "Evita" ensemble, under the brilliant choreography of Rob Ashford, is most impressive in its enthusiastic support. This driving force reaches its zenith at the close of the first act as Peron rises to power to rule "A New Argentina."

"Evita" touches off historical dynamite, wrapped in the tiny package of Bowman in one of the finest performances to grace the stage of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. It's an oldie, but it hasn't lost its immediacy and its power to touch an audience.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Evita"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Dec. 22

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org

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