According to Evita composer Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, “The basic point of ‘Evita’ is that it’s very anti-Eva.” But in theater, a production’s creative choices can flip a book and lyrics’ message on their head. That doesn’t normally happen, but Sammi Cannold’s direction of the production now at Harman Hall has done it.
Former Argentine First Lady Eva Perón is largely maligned in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony-winning musical, but under Sammi Cannold’s direction, Tim Rice’s lyrics serve a new narrative. The show has accomplished this by emphasizing a rarely mentioned, even underrealized part of Eva Perón’s story, one that rewrites the show’s entire narrative: she was a sexual assault survivor. This interpretation helps the show achieve a level of metatextual self-awareness that makes this production, already a tour-de-force of musical theater on a technical level, a must-see gem: It offers an all-too-relevant message about not only the dangers of fascism but more broadly, the dangers of untruths in popular narratives. Was Eva Perón a seductress, or a survivor — and what have popular narratives led us to believe, and why? This production combines costuming, sound, lighting, choreography, acting, and more to focus on exploring this theme.
The key narrative-flipping moment of the show is achieved through stunning, raw choreography by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff, and lighting design by Bradley King. During an instrumental section of “Buenos Aires,” men in rich-reading costumes are shown dragging a flailing young Eva around the stage. The moment ends with the men surrounding a terrified Eva as the lighting cuts to black. King’s work captures the horror of this moment, revealing the show’s revolutionary thesis about this character, and the faults of this show’s lyrics themselves.
Eva is shown to have been raped in Rice’s original lyrics and book, but that might escape audiences without major changes to casting and choreography. And Rice’s lyrics and book put it in plain sight that Perón was raped: when she meets tango singer Augustín Magaldi, the narrator character Che sings that “there was nowhere she’d been at the age of 15” (Cannold pointed this out in a TED talk she delivered when her production of Evita debuted at the New York City Center Stage in 2019). But are you really going to think of Eva Perón as a 15-year-old if you’re listening to an actress in her 30s or 40s sing the role, especially one who has been told to play this character with the gravitas of a dictator who had her opponents jailed, with likely few notes for the young Eva moments besides “make it believable that she might do that later”? Under Cannold’s direction and with the casting choices of Benton Whitley, Micah Johnson-Levy, Nicholas Petrovich, Erica A. Hart, and Cindy Tolan, this problem in previous productions has been ameliorated.
One of this production’s greatest feats, then, is that Shireen Pimentel plays a young Eva with an uncanny performance of a young ambitious girl — a child — with no obliviousness to 1930s Argentine classism, but plenty of obliviousness, at first, to how grown men will take advantage of a young woman willing to engage with them sexually. She is thrown onto beds by the much older Magaldi — she calls such things, per Rice’s lyrics, a “young girl’s fantasy.” The Buenos Aires rape scene takes place — and between that and her meeting with Juan Perón in “Charity Concert/I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You,” Eva has clearly registered what these men have done to her, and how she can use it to her advantage. Her fluffy curls have been replaced by Wig and Hair Designer Ashley Rae Callahan with an aristocratic updo, she is shown returning a man’s advances and rejecting them by treating him as her footman, and perhaps most importantly, she no longer sings with the squeaky, often vibrato-less tone of a young child.
With this voice, “Buenos Aires” is no longer the song of a conniver licking her chops, but an innocent girl singing her “I Want” song unaware of the wolves who surround her. I was sure that we were seeing two separate actresses in the role until only one Eva emerged at the curtain call. Pimentel is a revelation. The divide between the two performances makes Eva’s early abuses integral to the narrative, not merely a footnote in two or three songs in Act One framed as the character’s excuse for deceiving a nation out of revenge for being kicked out of her dad’s funeral when she was six.
The show’s sound design, costume design, and set design are crucial in enabling the show’s thesis about the dangers of bigoted popular narratives to shine. Omar Lopez-Cepero’s vocals as narrating character Che are given a particular amplification as he steps outside the proscenium, while the chorus — characters within the story as it unfolded — were significantly less amplified. These sound design choices demonstrate that the popular narrative about Eva Perón’s cunning sexploits has historically dominated her reputation. Further, Costume Designer Alejo Vietti has given Che a red top that matches Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood’s red border around the proscenium, signaling that Che — who is left unaware of Eva’s history of surviving sexual assault revealed in “Buenos Aires” — is the ignorant deliverer of an uninformed narrative. Lopez-Cepero’s performance pushes this perfectly — when he is most indifferent to the show’s goings-on, even reclining and smoking on the sidelines, some of the most important elements of Perón’s story are being told.
Sammi Cannold’s Evita, a Shakespeare Theatre Company presentation in association with the American Repertory Theater, has been billed as “a new generation’s take on Evita” — and for once, that line is not just marketing. This is the take on Evita by a generation that understands what really happened to this woman, reversing trends from this beloved show’s 40-plus-year production history. What makes it work is that all divisions of the cast and creative crew — costuming, scenic design, sound, wig and makeup, choreography, acting, and more — are on board.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Evita plays through October 15, 2023, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company in association with the American Repertory Theater at Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$134) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 547-1122. Shakespeare Theatre Company offers discounts for military servicepeople, first responders, senior citizens, young people, and neighbors, as well as rush tickets. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information. Audio-described and captioned performances are also available.
The Asides program for Evita is online here.
COVID Safety: All performances are mask recommended. Read more about STC’s Health and Safety policies here.
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Choreographed by Emily Maltby & Valeria Solomonoff
Directed by Sammi Cannold