Dan Domenech as Che in Evita

by Paul Willistein

To begin with, to paraphrase Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Eva Peron was dead. And yet, not unlike the Ghost of Jacob Marley, the spirit of Eva Peron is still with us.

The musical, “Evita,” begins with the funeral of Eva Peron, and then rewinds magnificently, fascinatingly and somewhat shockingly through the twists and turns of her youth, cabaret success, and movie actress fame to that of First Lady of Argentina at age 27.

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) production of “Evita,” through July 2, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, brings grandeur and tragedy in equal measure as directed by Dennis Razze, PSF Associate Artistic Director, and is embodied in a spectacular turn by Dee Roscioli as Eva Peron. The June 16 opening night “Evita” performance was reviewed.

PSF’s production of the musical by Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) that received eight Tony Awards in 1980 is world-class in every theatrical sense, from casting, to vocal, acting and instrumental performance, to choreography, to costumes, to staging, to lighting. You will be transported through time to Argentina, circa 1934-1952, by a compelling tango of political entanglement.

PSF’s opening season musicals directed by Razze are always phenomenal. “Evita,” coming on heels of “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Oklahoma!,” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is the best-ever.

PSF, and especially Razze, does musical theater not only proud, but big, That starts with a cast of 40, with everyone on point on stage, totally committed in their every gesture, dance step and vocals. It continues with a 15-piece orchestra, conducted by Nathan Diehl, that crackles with percussion, brass and strings in a distinctive Latin flavor (with revised charts from the 2012 “Evita” Broadway revival, as noted by Razze).

At the center of “Evita” (aka little Eva) is the performance of Dee Roscioli, who has the uncanny ability on stage to truly become any character she plays. First of all, there’s the voice. Roscioli has a range from a whisper to full-throat that puts the notes into orbit. This is evidenced in every song she sings in “Evita,” but especially in the contrast between her jaw-dropping rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” in the famous Casa Rosada balcony scene, and then in the finale, which becomes a bittersweet lament, a plea for forgiveness, understanding and love. Roscioli conveys the triumph and the sorrow of Eva Peron. Roscioli’s Eva is at once strong and conniving and vulnerable and needy. Roscioli plays the role with a sensitivity, strength and dignity that befits what we know of the historic Eva Peron. Roscioli is remarkable.

Roscioli wears all of the stages of Eva Peron’s life well, in no small part thanks to the brilliant and meticulous dresses and gowns by Costume Designer Lisa Zinni. From a floral-pattern purple dress of her small-town days, to increasingly more lavish dresses and suits, to a magnificent bejeweled glowing Dior white Cinderella ball type gown (which Zinni built), the some 14 costume changes by Roscioli pattern her march to radio, movie and political success. Zinni created amazing costumes for the entire cast, with wonderfully jaunty attire for the men, Argentinian military uniforms and soldier uniforms, to great outfits for the polo crowd sophisticates.

“Evita” is borne on the strong back of Dan Domenech as the narrator called Che, depoliticized here as the fiery revolutionary. He’s in nearly every scene. The energetic Domenech is charming, a raised eyebrow here, some side eye there, bounding across the stage, always in excellent dance form and voice in “Oh, What A Circus”; “Good Night And Thank You,” with Eva (Roscioli); “Peron’s Latest Flame”; “High Flying, Adored,” with Roscioli; “And The Money Kept Rolling In,” and “Waltz for Eva And Che.”

Paulo Szot, as Eva’s husband, Argentinian military leader Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, is to the role born, with a bold presence and operatic voice that booms and enthralls in “The Art Of The Possible,” with Roscioli; “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You,” with Roscioli; “She Is A Diamond,” “Dice Are Rolling,” and the Act One closer, the rumbling and roiling “A New Argentina,” with Roscioli and Domenech.

Jason Forbach, as Agustin Magaldi is yet another outstanding vocalist, framing the mood with “On This Night Of A Thousand Stars”; with Roscioili and Domenech, and “Charity Concert,” with Domenech and Szot.

Yet again proving the adage that there are no small roles is Jerusha Cavazos, as Peron’s Mistress, in the memorable “Another Suitcase In Another Hall.”

Choreographer Stephen Casey has devised intricate and stage-crossing dances by the ensemble that are eye-popping. There are lifts. There is ballroom dancing. There is tango, especially by tango duo Geraldine Rojas and Felix Marchany. There are weaving circular patterns.

The circular motif is carried out by Scenic Designer Steve TenEyck and Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen, through a stage floor sunburst design, with three concentric circles of lights shining up from the floor; three sets of arches that serve multiple purposes, and a rear wall of louvered wooden shutters. Set elements (bedroom door, bed, military meeting room table) are utilized. Cleverly, the crowd scenes are staged facing the back of the set, symbolizing the distance from the rulers and the ruled. Sound Designer Matt Kraus adds echo to some speeches and songs, creating a sense of magnitude. Projections Designer Arianna Knapp presents actual black and white footage of Eva Peron in a movie she starred in, as well as abundant newsreel footage of Eva, Peron and the regime.

Enough praise cannot be garnered for PSF’s “Evita,” truly a ground-breaking production for the Festival and those fortunate enough to be in the audience.

Daniel Domenech