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Tragic musical ‘Evita’ triumphs at BroadHollow

Has there ever been a musical that so despised its subject as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Evita?” Every song in the first act mocks and derides her through the improbable character of Che (Guevara? Was he really hanging around during all this?), a sneering anti−Peronista type who’s supposed to be the voice of conscience.

Fortunately, Laura Wallace−Rhodes, the director of the new production of “Evita” at the BroadHollow Theatre in Elmont, is aware of the composers’ nastiness and presents a portrait of the late Argentine first lady that’s as compassionate as it can be, given the material.

Yes, the Perons, who ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1952, were gangstas, especially Evita, who sometimes had to put the starch in Juan’s backbone; if Sarah Palin thinks she’s a pit bull, Evita was a cobra.

And she was most cobra−like toward the “oligarchs,” the rich folk who’d scorned her during her childhood as one of the yard children of a married landowner. When this SeÑor Duarte kicked the bucket, his real wife wouldn’t even allow his out−of−wedlock kids to attend the funeral. But Evita’s absolute identification with the poor and downtrodden of Argentina, her “shirtless ones,” was genuine. She and Juan worked too hard to give them rights and dignity, and Evita especially worked too hard to give Argentine women any sort of rights at all, for her act to have been the sham that Rice and Lloyd Weber think it was. She was almost fanatically devoted to the ideals and goals of her husband, even as some of their successes were bought with the smashed heads — and worse — of their enemies. One simply didn’t achieve power in Argentina back in the day without smashing some heads.

The musical, if you haven’t seen it, begins with Evita’s arrival from her dusty little pueblo to Buenos Aires when she was the teenaged mistress of a second−rate tango singer (the delightfully smarmy David Groeger). The first act is where much of the snark comes in, as Evita, a third−rate actress, is shown tossing one lover after another from her bedroom, cozying up to aspiring military strongman Juan Peron at a rally for earthquake victims and sending his latest mistress (Marisa Giacalone) packing. This is supposed to be more evidence of Evita’s callousness, though being sent packing was the usual fate of most mistresses — that Evita ended up marrying her lover was unusual. All the while, Che keeps a cynical eye on all the toing and froing.

In Act II the best thing happens — even Lloyd Weber and Rice couldn’t devise a better punishment for this beautiful, aggressive and ambitious woman than for her to die an agonizing death from cancer at age 33. Even Evita is supposed to have said that if she ever committed any sins (and she did), she paid for them with the pain of her final illness. And Act II is where Wallace−Rhodes and her cast soar, as the composers’ contempt melts under the weight of tragedy.

Jennifer Hope, besides her beautiful soprano voice, brings a real warmth to Evita along with her “cold ambition.” Joe Mankowski is also good as Juan Peron. Their duet, sung while he holds the dying Evita in his arms, is devastating. Donald J. Dowdell is so good in the thankless role of Che that the reviewer wanted to boo him at the end.

The bustling cast are choreographed by Kevin Wallace and lit by Josh Starr, and the women are dressed in lovely frocks and hats from the 1940s and ’50s by Julia Brennan and LiLi Costumes. Gary Haglich did the sound design. The BroadHollow’s wonderful Children’s Ensemble provides altar boys and needy, worshipful Argentine kiddies. Brian Howard’s wooden set is constructed to remind one, perhaps, of an Argentine rancho, and the live band, under musical director Gary Eisele, is stirring.

In the end, the production triumphs over the intent of its creators, and this tension gives it much of its energy, charm and second−act pathos. Wallace−Rhodes succeeds in letting us know, as she insists, that Evita was human after all.

Evita will be at the Broadhollow Theatre through Nov. 2.

If You Go:

Evita —Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Presented by the BroadHollow Theatre Company

When: Oct. 24, 25, 31, Nov. 1, 8 p.m.; Oct. 26, Nov. 2, 2:30 p.m.

Where: BroadHollow Theatre, 700 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont

Cost: $28 adults, $25 seniors, $18 students, $14 youth

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