Director Tommy Iafrate beautifully bookends the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Evita with scenes in which the actors acknowledge, or the staging makes clear, that the cast is performing specifically for an audience.
As Thursday night's show started, the chorus members flanked the audience along the outer aisles as Colleen Johnson, who plays Evita, entered the stage, picked up the script for the show, and began reading it while projections of the pages she was scanning appeared on a small, upstage-left screen. Johnson then led the cast in the song "Requiem for Evita" right before Che's number "Oh What a Circus" began the actual telling of Eva Peron's story. In a similar vain, Johnson performed the show's final piece, "Lament," directly to the audience, as if admonishing us to consider what we'd seen, and judge Evita on the good things that came of her questionable paths.
Iafrate's choice to present composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's and lyricist Tim Rice's through-composed musical as a "consider this," rather than a slice of life, adds a level of poignancy to the piece. It's particularly effective during "Lament," which, prior to Thursday's show, I'd only ever seen performed as Eva's dying words. Here, she's already dead, with the actress stepping away from her deathbed to sing to the audience as the other characters continue to mourn her. Ironically, Iafrate and Johnson remove the lament from the number, as Johnson presents it almost matter-of-factly, with a hint of defiance rather. And the scene is arguably the most gripping, the most stirring of the night, as the change of song style actually adds a haunting quality to it.
For her part, Johnson is strong-voiced and facially expressive, but also belts and emotes as if playing to the balcony in a larger theatre, and for the most part, doesn't seem to actually connect with the heart of Evita; her portrayal lacks sincerity. (Arguably, though, Webber's and Rice's Evita is an insincere, self-interested woman.) Johnson does have some lovely moments, though, such as her gentle, sob-filled rendition of the song "You Must Love Me," a song written for the film version but included here. "Lament," too, is perfectly toned, as Johnson sings to the audience without much physical embellishment beyond defiant, piercing glances at individuals in the theatre.
With such a whirlwind, larger-than-life take on Evita, Maggie Ellsworth's turn as Juan Peron's mistress comes as a welcome respite from the overpowering energy of the first act. Ellsworth sings "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" with a confused hopelessness, dripping with sincerity in every beautifully sung line, and the piece possesses a sad, gentle sweetness that also allows you to catch your breath before the show's bombastic energy returns.
Adam Lewis is fantastically full- and richly-voiced as Peron, and while using a big voice impressively, subtly shapes his Peron with simple facial expressions - a raised eyebrow here and a mouthed thought there, his meaning seen but not heard. Lewis and Johnson are also fantastic together, equally grand in style and exceptional in talent, with a chemistry befitting a power-hungry couple using each other but also growing to care for each other during their rise to Argentinian control.
In contrast to the Perons, Joseph Feldman's take on Che is refreshing for his relatively softer, lighter performance. His Che isn't the expected, intense revolutionary. Instead, Feldman comes across more like a college student rebelling and protesting because that's what college students do. He's against Evita because she's popular, and he dislikes all things liked by the majority because only he and those close to him truly understand the world. There's something endearing about that "impetuousness of youth" approach, and it helps that Feldman is also so likable, with his humorous eye rolls and "Do you believe this?" arm gestures. (There's a wonderful moment, in particular, where Feldman seems to relish that Evita was called a whore, with sheer delight mixed with a sense of victory expressed on his face.)
There's much to like about the Showboat's Evita and little to dislike, unless you demand subtlety. However, beyond designer Kenneth Verdugo's effectively minimalist set and costume designer kClare Kemock's black, gray, and brown palette for the chorus (with colorful accessories signifying changes in character), subtlety is in short supply here. Then again, Evita Peron, as Webber and Rice remind us, was not a subtle woman.
For information and tickets, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.