“Oh what a circus, oh what a show,” our narrator Che (Dan Domenech) sings at the start of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s stunning production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. Although the observation pertains to Argentina’s reaction to the news of the death of their first lady, Eva Perón, Che was inadvertently foreshadowing the grandeur of the production the audience would witness. Directed by Dennis Razze (who also serves as Associate Artistic Director for the festival), PSF’s Evita revisits the spark that made the original 1979 production shine so brightly.
In the 38 years since the “rock opera” hit American soil, Evita has been re-imagined many times over––Michael Grandage’s 2012 Broadway revival starring Elena Roger and Ricky Martin was completely re-tooled in an effort to add more authenticity (Roger herself is Argentinian). Razze has gone in an opposite direction, retaining much of the original production’s integrity and design elements (the ring of lights installed within the deck of the stage comes to mind first) while updating the piece for the 21st century. It’s directorial choice which might seem “safe” in writing, but the decision runs the risk of delivering a stale final product if executed incorrectly. Razze’s staging (alongside Stephen Casey’s choreography) is one part thrilling time capsule, one part innovation. It gives the audience a glance at the Evita he first fell in love with in 1979 (after catching a performance in San Francisco before the show moved to Broadway, starring a then relatively-unknown Patti LuPone) while simultaneously updating the piece for a new generation.
Though what truly makes PSF’s Evita shine is rooted in the performance. The cast assembled for this production works so well with one another that you often forget you’re sitting in an auditorium somewhere in the Lehigh Valley. FOX’s Glee star Domenech plays Che, an omniscient narrator whose distaste of the Peróns provides the audience with a devil’s advocate. Originally modeled after Cuban Revolution guerilla leader Che Guevara (who was Argentinian himself), the character has been depoliticized in this production to represent “every-man.” Domenech has a rich tenor, impressive falsetto and undeniable charm, though in parts his character verges on conspiracy theorist rather than simply presenting an opposing point of view.
Tony-Award winner (Lincoln Center’s 2008 revival of South Pacific) Paulo Szot is brilliant as Colonel Juan Perón. Perón is undoubtedly a tough character to portray; I’ve often found him falling into the background. Szot has a commanding presence whenever he is on stage. He gives the Argentine dictator heart while retaining authority. Szot’s Perón is a formidable yet tender presence. With his operatic baritone, it’s no surprise why Eva Duarte was drawn to him. Szot’s performance subconsciously forces the audience to throw any preconceived notions one has in regards to Perón (as both a person and a character) out the window.
The standout performance of the evening is Easton, PA native and DeSales University alum Dee Roscioli as Eva Perón. Roscioli auditioned for the title role in another Razze-helmed Evita production her senior year of college. Ironically, she didn’t get the part. Now a seasoned Broadway veteran (including breaking records as one of the longest-running Elphabas in Wicked‘s history), Ms. Roscioli’s career came full circle when the same director tapped her to star in the title role.
Roscioli is transcendent as Eva; her soaring vocals during infamously difficult numbers such as “A New Argentina” and “Rainbow High” send an instant chill up the spine. The notes glow in her distinct vocal tone. Combined with masterfully nuanced acting, Roscioli’s performance is the vessel in which the audience is fully transported to World War II-era Argentina. Chronicling seventeen years of Eva Perón’s life in two hours is a daunting task for an actor, a task at which Ms. Roscioli excels. Subtle changes in mannerisms (paired with exquisitely designed costumes by Lisa Zinni, many of which seem as if they crawled from the real Evita’s body, out of the history books and onto Dee Roscioli) chart Eva’s progress from a naïve fifteen-year-old from the slums of rural Argentina leaping to the bright lights of Buenos Aires, through Eva Duarte’s career as a movie and radio star, arriving at her position as First Lady and “Spiritual Leader” of her nation. Roscioli’s abilities are such that no suspension of disbelief is required in regards to the timeline. Her understanding of the sheer personal drive which fed the real Eva Perón gives a well-rounded performance; vulnerable yet confident; egomaniacal yet empathetic.
Ms. Roscioli’s turn as Evita alone is enough to warrant a trip to Center Valley. This triumphant production as a whole makes Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Evita an event not to be missed––if you can find a ticket.
Through July 2, 2017
Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University
Center Valley, PA
Tickets available here.