"Evita" demands a certain amount of sweep and brawn, and that's what it gets in the new production at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.
Director Toby Orenstein fills the in-the-round space with swirling crowds and catches the grandstanding Evita in white hot spotlights, keeping the pace brisk and always driving the action forward. As usual at Toby's, it's a high-energy evening.
Like most Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, "Evita" is a peculiar musical. It's a sprawling epic with only two characters of any real size (Evita Peron and the narrator, Che Guevara).
Tim Rice's lyrics are politically impassioned but poetically stilted, and Lloyd Webber's music employs everything from classical requiems and insinuating tangos to agitated pop tunes. The score's most famous love song, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," is a real oddity: It's a weepy, two-faced anthem sung by the leading lady to her gullible admirers.
Biography of Eva Peron
"Evita" is a biography - with attitude - of Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina until her death at age 33 in 1952.
The story is told through the clenched teeth of Che Guevara. Guevara - the guerrilla leader of revolutionary movements in Cuba and Bolivia - despises the cold political opportunism of Eva Duarte, a peasant girl-turned-actress who sleeps her way to the top of the government.
Through Guevara, Rice spits out his criticism of Evita's machinations in songs like "Good Night and Thank You" and "High Flying Adored." The musical depicts Evita spouting populist rhetoric while plotting to seize power with husband Juan Peron, and creating a fund for the needy while skimming money off the top.
Evita is a monster without much of a sympathetic side, which means that the actress playing the part has to exude a lot of magnetism. Lauri Kraft tackles the role with a fiery eye and a pleasant voice, but is never quite the bombshell - emotionally or vocally - that Evita needs to be.
So as often happens in productions of "Evita," the balance of power falls to Che - in this case, Bobby Smith, who glowers and chafes at the Argentine political circus with a mixture of weariness and outrage. Smith is a triple threat here, serving as assistant director and choreographer (with Ilona Kessell and Terry Sweeney) as well as acting. His performance is smooth and authoritative; he sings with a pro's aplomb, and his Che is an efficient, if seething, tour guide.
Portrayal of Juan Peron
Rick Stohler makes the most of his brief numbers as Juan Peron, unleashing a rich baritone voice and a politician's oily smile as Peron ascends to the presidency. But as "Evita" goes on, you realize how much the show is propelled not by individuals, but by the chorus, which plays street people, generals, dancers, crowds of Peronists - all strata of society. The choreography follows the familiar pattern of moving people in tight clusters, and the chorus here dances and sings smartly.
In fact, this large chorus, often singing with the full-throated frenzy of a mobilized mob, gives the production its feeling of size. (The small orchestra here plays capably, but is occasionally undermanned to handle the big orchestral effects of Lloyd Webber's score.)
Evita died young, and so does the show: Rice and Lloyd Webber just let the story peter out. But up until the slack finish, it's hard not to admire the swirl of ambition and social criticism. "Evita" may be more refined as spectacle than as art, but it's got swagger; it's a clenched fist of a musical.
Toby's Dinner Theatre presents "Evita," music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice, through Nov. 19. Information: 410- 730-8311.