More than 60 years after her death – and more than four decades since her story came to the stage – the saga of Eva Peron still captures our attention. Pretty good for a young woman with few prospects from an obscure corner of the globe.
Not that her story is always a happy one. Still, a rags-to-riches tale filled with romance, intrigue, manipulation and Latin American politics is definitely captivating. Throw in upbeat music and choreography, and you’ve got the basis of a popular Broadway musical, one that’s now on stage at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener, the latest production from JM Drama.
Winner of seven Tony Awards, Evita is based on the life and times of Eva Peron, the second wife of Argentine dictator General Juan Peron. It chronicles her life as Argentina’s most complex and powerful figure, against a backdrop of political unrest, until her tragic death of cancer in 1952.
Born Eva Duarte in 1919 – illegitimate, poor, without privilege – she overcame it all, becoming the First Lady of Argentina at the age of 27 and the most powerful woman her country had ever seen. Blessed with charisma, Eva captivated a nation by championing the working class. A saint to the ordinary people, she was reviled by the aristocracy, and mistrusted by the military.
A collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Evita first hit the stage in 1978. Since then it’s been a favourite with audiences worldwide. Although set against the real historical going-ons in Argentina of the 1930s and ’40s, the Cinderella-esque nature of the story – albeit with some decidedly non-fairytale-like turns – explains its enduring appeal.
“The appeal is the struggle she had growing up. She didn’t have the easiest life,” said director Mark Panchaud. “In the end, she did a lot for the people of Argentina.
“The public loved her.”
Flashback to 1934. A night club in Junin, Eva’s home town. Eva Duarte is just 15. She asks the singer appearing in the club, Agustin Magaldi, with whom she has had a brief affair, to take her to the big city – Buenos Aires. He is reluctant, but she gets her way.
Once in Buenos Aires, Eva quickly disposes of Magaldi and works her way through a string of men, each of whom helps her one rung more up the ladder of fame and fortune. She becomes a successful model, broadcaster and film actress.
Now it’s 1943. Colonel Juan Peron is one of several military leaders close to the presidency of Argentina, which in recent years has proved a far-from-secure job for the incumbent.
At a charity concert (featuring Eva’s old friend Magaldi) held to raise money for the victims of an Argentine earthquake, Eva and Peron meet. They both realize that each has something the other wants. From now on, Eva hitches her ambitions to political stars. She evicts Peron’s mistress from his apartment and moves into Peron’s life to such an extent that she excites the extreme wrath of two factions who were to remain her enemy until her death: the army and the aristocracy.
Still later, Eva is sick – cancer will eventually take her at the age of 33 – but intent on maintaining her place in the media spotlight. She’ll be the centre of attention until the end – to the strains of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”
And it’s the music and dancing that seals the deal in Evita, of course.
“Certainly the music pulls them in, the choreography – it’s a lot of moving, a lot of dancing,” Panchaud said of the audience appeal.
“I’m convinced that any male that sees this will want to go out and learn the tango,” he added with a laugh.
Has was taken with Evita himself from the first time he heard the soundtrack album in high school, when he was performing in another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.
“I fell in love with it. I found a lot of the songs upbeat and fun,” he said, noting the story does take a bit of a turn towards the end. He cites Peron’s Latest Flame – “Eva’s struggle against the aristocracy and the army on the other side” – and Rainbow Tour as the upbeat songs that capture his attention.
Given that JM Drama’s announcement it was going to do Evita packed auditions, Panchaud isn’t the only one enamoured with the musical.
The group’s production features a cast of 28, leaving plenty for the director to coordinate, especially within the confines of The Registry Theatre.
“It is a fairly large cast for such an intimate site,” he admitted.
The JM Drama staging of Evita runs August 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, with show time at 7:30 in each case. Tickets are $33 ($29 for seniors and students), available online at kwtickets.evenue.net or by calling 519-579-8564. More information is available at www.registrytheatre.com.