Must-see ‘Mummy in the Closet’ returns to GALA with Eva Perón

The musical is lively, entertaining, at times chilling, and deliciously transgressive.

Saint or whore? The world still argues the legacy of Argentina’s Eva Perón. GALA Theatre has remounted a musical that not only confronts head on the lingering national haunting by this iconic figure but more critically now speaks to our times as a warning about what can happen when thugs seize power by whatever means possible. It’s a tale so fantastic it has to be true. (Mostly.)

Gustavo Ott wrote the book through a commission from GALA back in 2009. Now, he has pulled the work out of the closet and come out swinging, making Momia en el clóset: Evita’s Return a finale to this his first season as GALA’s producing artistic director, following the death last year of Founding Artistic Director Hugo Medrano.

The show is lively, entertaining, at times chilling, and, refreshingly for a musical, deliciously transgressive.

Martín Ruiz as President Perón and Fran Tapia as Eva Perón in ‘Mummy in the Closet: Evita Returns.’ Photo by Daniel Martínez.

The following are the background facts upon which the musical is based. When Argentina’s first lady Eva Perón died in 1952 at the age of 33, her husband had her embalmed. Her death triggered great civil unrest, which was already brewing, on one side an outpouring of devotion by many poor people who wished to canonize their Eva and, on the other side, increasingly fascist coalitions, including a military coup, that wanted her erased from the nation’s memory. Eva’s body went on a 20-year odyssey, including being moved and hidden multiple times and mutilated, and for a time it was lost. Argentina entered a dark chapter, its “dirty war,” as brutal and terrifying as any totalitarian society in the last 100 years.

GALA ‘s musicals are known for the mighty heart and soul put into them, despite somewhat limited resources. Little seems wanting in this production. Seven musicians are hidden somewhere up under the roof, including Music Director and pianist, the esteemed Walter “Bobby” McCoy, and the ensemble manages to produce a big pulsing sound to do justice to the original score by Argentine composer Mariano Vales. His tangos and other dance numbers are especially pleasing.

Ott shares lyric credits with Vales, and they have fashioned a most satisfying collaboration in crafting the songs, which include ballads and many upbeat numbers.

Mariano Caligaris directs with fearlessness and, as only a native Argentinian dare do, approaches the material with a sharply critical historic perspective but also a cheerfully naughty wit. He goes so far as to unmask the hypermasculinity of a fascist military government to suggest underlying homosexual drives and uses dark humor to expose the sexual exploitation and abuse of Eva’s corpse. It’s all about power.

Valeria Cossu has created energetic choreography for the ensemble throughout. The dancers explode onto the stage time again, going from hot-and-happy Latin-dance numbers to stage fights simulating Argentine military roundup and abuse of its citizens, and from gliding tangos to contemporary hip-hop. This ensemble can do it all. They push the story forward and get our hearts racing. By intermission, these dancers had more than earned their break.

TOP: Fran Tapia. Back: Facundo Agustín, Luis Obed, Tsaitami Duchicela (back), Oscar A. Rodríguez, Rodolfo Santamarina, and Sofía Grosso in ‘Mummy in the Closet: Evita Returns.’. Photo by Stan Weinstein.
ABOVE: Martín Ruiz and Fran Tapia. Back: Luis Obed, Camila Aldet, Luis Benitez, Jennifer Preston, Oscar Rodríguez, and Darina Eid, in ‘Mummy in the Closet: Evita Returns.’ Photo by Daniel Martínez.

At the center of the story is Eva herself. Fran Tapia embodies the bigger-than-life, ambitious, and quixotic Eva. The singer-actress, like the character she plays, is indeed a ghost returned, for she first came to GALA as the company’s Paso Nuevo Education Director, only to be snatched up and cast in the Gloria Estefan bio-musical, On Your Feet!, for which she won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer and went on to do a national tour.

In so many ways, this singer-actress is magnificent in the role, captivating us even when she stands, eyes closed, as a mummified statue. But you can’t keep this one in a closet! She flutters her eyes, tangos, flirts, and holds out her arms to embrace the world. She is most affecting taking us through the emotions of each song. Her voice is pleasing, if not fully balanced yet top and bottom, but I have no doubt this talented and hard-working professional will continue to shoot meteor-like and become an even more remarkable, much-in-demand superstar.

The array of characters in the show is richly populated by a talented supporting cast. Martín Ruiz plays President Perón. He creates a most believable arc for his character, going from powerful leader to bereft widower, then re-established tough guy with his new wife Isabel, and finally a scared and feeble old man in exile. Camila Taleisnik gives us the bubble-haired Isabel, who steps up as next wife to Perón and later to rule Argentina. She serves as an important bridge to understanding the country’s reeling as she grows tougher and more reactive. Rodrigo Pedreira blew me away with his physical control and whacko-pseudo-Dr. Frankenstein energy as the creepy Dr. Ara. Diego Mariani brings us an indelible scary Colonel Moori. Oscar Antonio Rodríguez and Luis Obed Velázquez distinguish themselves in this production as singer-actor-dancer triple threats.

Here and there production elements needed some tweaks. Specifically, the sound system still needs work. There was annoying feedback at the start, and the uneven mic’ing of performers jarred.

But the storytelling of creative team and cast is spot on. For all its high entertainment value, the show does not let us off the hook. The horrors Momia shows us is not (only) about state terrorism of the past and far away. The danger in the insistence of holding onto power by whatever means is very real in 2024.The enemy is here, a “mummy” already “out of the closet.” This is a musical must-see for DC.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Mummy in the Closet: Evita’s Return (Momia en el Clóset) plays through June 9, 2024 (Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm), at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online. Regular tickets are $50 from Thursday through Sunday. Senior (65+), military, and group (10+) tickets are $35; and student (under 25) tickets are $25. For more information, visit galatheatre.org or call (202) 234-7174. Tickets are also available on Goldstar and TodayTix.

In Spanish with English surtitles.

The playbill for Mummy in the Closet is downloadable here (scroll down).

COVID Safety: All performances are mask-optional. See GALA’s complete COVID-19 Safety Policy.

Mummy in the Closet: Evita’s Return
Book & Lyrics by Gustavo Ott
Original Music & Lyrics by Mariano Vales
Directed by Mariano Caligaris

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