Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, May 17, 2001

Dynamic women
bring emotion
to ACT’s ‘Evita’

On stage: 7:30 p.m. today to Saturday and May 24 to 26, Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter. Tickets $12 and $15. Call 438-4480 or 438-5320.

Review by John Berger

The role of Juan Peron's teenage mistress is a small one, but Stefanie Okuda makes her moment one of the highlights of Army Community Theatre's inviting production of "Evita."

"Another Suitcase in Another Hall" marks the moment when Peron's new mistress, Eva Duarte, enters Peron's apartment and brusquely informs the younger woman that she's been dismissed. The scene says much about the character of Duarte and Peron. She's cold and cruel and vindictive in her victory over the less experienced woman. Peron, the politically shrewd soldier, remains outside and has his new lover earn her place by doing the dirty work of telling his former lover to hit the road.

Okuda makes that key scene her own. She sings it beautifully and physically portrays the hapless woman's emotional devastation as well.

How Eva, born poor and illegitimate, became the glamorous and controversial Evita Peron, first lady of Argentina, is the story Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber tell in the musical. Suffice it to say that "Evita" is a bit more PG-13 in theme and content than most of the fare at ACT.

"Evita" dissects the story of an intelligent and ruthless woman who became the 15-year-old mistress of a popular singer, dumped the singer when she met a man better placed to advance her career, and repeated the process until she met Peron.

Working-class Argentines and the millions of impoverished "shirtless ones" embraced her as one of their own, even though much of the money collected on their behalf by the Eva Peron Foundation disappeared before it could reach the intended recipients.

Joshua Harris plays Che Guevara, who provides cynical commentary as the narrator. Che is to Evita what Judas was to Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Director Stephanie Conching makes ACT's "Evita" a smooth and colorful social parable, maintaining a dramatic crispness from start to finish. Nothing feels rushed. Nothing seems too long.

Lina Jeong Doo (musical director) gives the cast a solid musical score. Tom Giza (set design) opts for stylization in framing the action; that approach works well. Derek Daniels (choreography) doesn't have many conventional production numbers to work with, but he captures the energy of urban Argentina with "Buenos Aires" and neatly illustrates Eva's predatory climb in "Goodnight and Thank You."

Audio quality was a problem on opening night. At times, microphones weren't turned on fast enough to catch singers' first words. Several impassioned performances were allowed to spike beyond the capability of the speakers. Those problems should be resolved by now.

ACT veteran Mary Chesnut does a fine job in the title role. Forget the movie, forget the several other productions that have played here, and enjoy her interpretation. "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is the show's grand anthem -- and she does it well. She establishes herself as a dynamic Eva early in Act 1 and goes on to deliver an engaging performance throughout.

Rice and Lloyd Webber weren't interested in Peron except as the final rung on Eva's ladder to power. But Conching and Alex Santiago as Peron show Peron's feelings grow deeper as the relationship develops. It is a fine debut for Santiago.

Kalani Hicks is another asset with his portrayal of the tango singer Magaldo, "the first man to be of use" to Eva.

Harris had a harder time than he should have had in establishing Che as the cynical observer of the political circus. His first number, "Oh What a Circus," is intended to do that, but it didn't happen on opening night. A thin audio mix sapped much of the song's dramatic impact, but there were other times when it was hard to tell if it was the sound operator or Harris who was responsible for Che's lack of presence.

At times it seemed the audience was simply missing the acid-etched humor of Che's observations and the verbal sparring between other characters.

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