NORTH EAST — As Milburn Stone Theatre’s upcoming production of “Evita” prepares to take the stage, the show’s titular mid-19th century Argentine first lady is stuck on you and hopes you will be too.
Running June 14-16 and 21-23 at Cecil College’s theater in North East, this show follows the journey of historical figure Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, starting when she was just a girl living outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who longed for a life in the big city. After following her dreams, Eva climbs the social ladder in Buenos Aires. Simultaneously, Col. Juan Perón is making moves in his own career. Juan and Eva meet, hit it off, marry and climb to the height of President and First Lady of Argentina together.
Andrew Mitchell, artistic director at MST, said Eva Perón — or “Evita” as many called her — was a figure who “inspired and embodied hope for people who were at times hopeless.”
While many audience members may be familiar with the story through the 1996 movie of the same name starring Madonna as Evita, Mitchell said seeing the live stage production brings something new to the tale.
“We’re excited that audiences who maybe have only been familiar with Evita from the movie will get a chance to see what Evita is like on stage because it’s a completely different type of story when it’s live and in front of you,” he said. “We’ve simplified some things. We’re focusing on who Eva Perón was and what Eva Perón was to the people of Argentina. Every so often you get these cult-of-personality, larger-than-life figures and Eva Perón absolutely was that.”
Mitchell said while Madonna has a good voice for pop music, it doesn’t quite rise to the level needed for the Evita role. In MST’s production, on the other hand, Allison Graham plays Evita with the strength the role needs, according to Mitchell.
“Madonna vocally played down the role a little bit compared to how a stage production of ‘Evita’ might work with Eva Perón,” he said. “While Madonna is a wonderful performer, she’s not necessarily the powerhouse vocalist you would need in this role. Allison Graham, who is Evita, has a nice, rich, loud, mezzo-soprano voice that works to fill out the sound compared to Madonna’s more pop voice that you might find.”
Although Evita was popular — and even idolized — among many poor and working class supporters, others felt she was hypocritical for helping people of lower socioeconomic statuses while maintaining her own lavish lifestyle. Some opponents were also critical of a woman having so much power over Argentine politics, and suggested that Evita had risen to the top based on sexuality rather than merit.
Bob Gatchel, who plays Juan Perón, said it was exciting to take on a show that revolves around such a controversial character.
“Even until today, she is a very divisive character in history,” Gatchel said. “There’s still buildings and monuments to her in Buenos Aires and throughout Argentina, yet some people still hate her. It’s amazing through this period of time that something lives that long, and to have it set down in music is really cool.”
Though MST’s “Evita” comprises a smaller cast than other performances of this Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, that more intimate feeling plays to the theater’s favor, according to Aidan Briggs, who plays the narrator, Che, in the show.
“The way we’re doing it, that makes it that much more interesting and that much more involved because everybody — except for the three lead characters — is playing two or three different people throughout the show,” Briggs said. “Everyone gets a lot closer in a sense and just connects with the audience a little bit more.”
While Evita stands at the center of the story, Mitchell said the show also makes room for other important players, including Che.
“As much as it’s Evita’s story, Che as the narrator has a lot to bring to the story,” he said.
Before being cast as Che, Briggs had not ever seen “Evita.” But after he took on the role, Briggs said he wanted to make sure Che’s passion and fire shone through.
“Something that I hope to bring to the character would be his drive and his purpose for doing what he does throughout the show,” he said. “You can tell throughout the show that he disagrees with Eva but it’s kind of about why he doesn’t like what she’s done and really just bringing that out of the character a little bit more.”
In working with the show’s director, Gatchel said they changed a scene where Juan sings “She’s a Diamond” to hold a stronger tone.
“Typically, this is where Perón comes and starts talking to his cabinet, explaining that she’s the reason we’re where we are,” he said. “A lot of times that’s played very weak and pensive. In this case, [the director] wanted to make it a little bit more in your face, show a little more strength that he was asserting a little more power.”
When Gatchel was younger, he said he always wanted to play Che. But he was also intrigued by Juan’s depth as a character.
“In the show you don’t see him in a lot of scenes. But the scenes he’s in are extremely pivotal and powerful ... I like the character because he’s more complex of just being really powerful, really weak, being a leader but hiding behind his wife,” Gatchel said. “It’s really fun to try and play that in these short scenes. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun.”
Mitchell said this production offers a more minimalistic approach to the show than other versions — a choice they made to focus more on Evita’s “rags to riches” story and the characters involved in it.
“It’s a fairly scaled down in scope production of Evita compared to what you might find on Broadway, but it also allows us to emphasize the story and really focus on who Eva Perón was, who she was for Argentina, how she rose to fame, where she came from and where she ended up eventually becoming the first lady of Argentina,” he said.
Though most scenes feature few props, the stage is still brought to life visually with lights, projections and other elements.
“I think we’ve done a great job telling a multimedia story of Evita,” Mitchell said. “There’s a lot of projections and video. There’s great sound. There’s fun dance. Our lights are wonderful for this production.”
After several decades in theater, Gatchel said he is proud to work with such a professional cast for “Evita.”
“Every show has its challenges. This show is no different,” he said. “However, I have not seen a smaller cast be able to adapt to these changes, run with it and gel so quickly to fix our challenges and overcome the obstacles so that we’re able to really put on a tight show … Everybody on that stage is a professional. That’s what’s exciting to me is the chance to work with professionals, have fun and tell a fun story.”
For ticket prices and more information, audiences can visit www.milburnstone.com.