A worthy production of Evita requires casting three leads - Eva and Juan Peron, and Che Guevara - with strong acting and vocal talent and mature understanding, a challenge for most companies and a major one for the Talent Machine Company, where the oldest performer is only 18.
But there is no doubt that this young cast is up to the challenge - in fact, I soon forgot how young they actually were.
Evita debuted in 1976 and marked the last Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaboration. Their first was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968, followed in 1970 by Jesus Christ Superstar - three mega-hits usually described as rock opera.
Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, who was born in Argentina in 1919 as Eva Duarte, then became an actress who had acquired a checkered past by the time she met and married Juan Peron in 1945. Because of her humble origins, Eva sought power for herself and her husband, helping him to become president of Argentina. As first lady, she was venerated by the poor, whom she helped, but was despised and feared by the upper classes and the military. A formidable presence for only seven years, Eva died of cancer at age 33 in 1952.
The musical Evita opens dramatically with cast members seated in rows simulating a Buenos Aires movie house where the death of Eva Peron is announced. It is followed by a funeral procession with the people of Argentina pouring out their love for first lady Evita.
The action then shifts to an earlier time in a village where ambitious teenager Eva is involved with tango singer Augustin Magaldi as her ticket out. The story is told through music with little dialogue and through characters like Magaldi and Peron's former mistress.
Central to this story is Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who serves as narrator for Eva's story. Che Guevara, who shared similar ideologies with Eva, spins the story of how this charismatic woman achieved near-sainthood among her people. Guevara questions whether her actions were justified and if she was deserving of the love showered on her - similar to Judas, who searched for flaws in Jesus in Superstar.
The Talent Machine's production of Evita is compelling musical theater on many levels - expert direction by Dewey Oriente-Cassidy, whose collaborations with founder Bobbi Smith goes back to 1987, on the first Talent Machine show.
Lea Capps serves as assistant director and in the tradition of her late mother - Bobbi Smith - creates exciting, often amazing choreography that her cast performs with precision and excellence.
Musical director Emily Petty has coaxed first-rate vocal performances from the entire cast in chorus work and from the leads and other soloists.
A relatively simple set is brought to life by the lighting design of Garrett Hyde.
In her final Talent Machine performance, 18-year-old Taylor Rector caps 12 years at TMC with a convincing portrayal of Evita, moving from dark-haired teenager Eva Duarte dancing in her native village to first lady Eva Peron, regal in a stunning white gown as she sings a heartfelt "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from a flag-draped balcony.
Rector's portrayal captures every nuance of the character's power-driven ambition, the sensuality as she clings to her tango singer, her take-no-prisoners dismissal of a rival for Peron's affection, and her compassion for the people, along with the convincing battle against cancer. Through it all, Rector projects a charismatic aura befitting her character.
As Che Guevara, recent Severna Park High School graduate Benjamin Mallare marks his fifth TMC show with a dynamic portrayal that heats up his every scene, taunting Evita and interpreting her actions and Juan Peron's for the audience.
Mallare's Che is a fascinating combination of passionate ideologue and cynic, and he moves with cat-like agility and grace delivering his songs with a staccato energy that is most effective in "Oh What a Circus" and with Taylor's Eva in "High Flying Adored" and later in "Waltz for Eva and Che." My only criticism is his rapid-fire delivery sometimes makes some of the words difficult to understand.
In a young cast full of surprises, I was surprised to discover that the actor with the powerful baritone playing Juan Peron was a senior at Archbishop Spalding High School - student Ryan Kozel. His Peron is an imposing presence that projects a sense of power, resignation and ruthlessness along with what comes across as a restrained admiration and affection for his wife, who helped empower him.
Playing tango singer Augustin Magaldi is 14-year-old tenor Austin Heemstra, who makes his TMC debut here, becoming a believable heart-throb to the local village girls and delivering a memorable "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" - one of the best tunes in the show.
Another captivating performance is offered by South River High School sophomore Madeleine Raley as Juan Peron's mistress, displaying a lovely singing voice in "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Raley alternates in this role with Sarah Johansen, who will perform on Friday and Sunday .
Everyone in this show contributes a polished performance. Anything less would have been immediately apparent in diminishing the overall quality. All of the chorus work is top-notch, as is all of the ensemble dancing, with special kudos due the precision Military Officers ensemble.
Evita performances are scheduled tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at St. John's College Key Auditorium. General admission is $12 and $10 for children younger than 7. Seats are available for all performances, and tickets may be purchased at the theater.