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'Evita' review: First-class take on Argentina's first lady

Don't cry for Arianna Rosario, who shines as

Don't cry for Arianna Rosario, who shines as Eva Perón in "Evita" at Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Photo Credit: Lenny Stucker

WHAT "Evita"

WHEN | WHERE Through Sept. 2, Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay St., Sag Harbor

INFO From $40; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org

BOTTOM LINE An out-of-the box twist gives this megahit deeper resonance and emotion.

Ambitious — and a little risky. That's what I thought when I heard Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor was bringing to its intimate stage the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber megahit "Evita," winner of multiple Tony Awards and the musical that made a star of Northport's Patti LuPone.

But director Will Pomerantz, Bay Street's associate artistic director, was ready with an out-of-the-box twist (smart, it was extended through Sept. 2 after the first weekend), one that gives the show a deeper resonance and emotional underpinning in telling the well-known story of Argentina's power-hungry first lady, Eva Perón. Paring the musical down to its essentials, Pomerantz sets this "Evita" in a seedy tango bar on July 26, 1962, 10 years to the day after Perón's death. Members of the underground Perónista movement have gathered in secret there every year on this date to re-enact the story of her death (an Argentine passion play, if you will). 

Once the setting is established (the cast is milling about Anna Louizos' realistic set as the audience enters), the story unfolds pretty much as we know it. The hardworking, tight cast of 14 plus a few uncredited extras are in constant motion with Marcos Santana's tango-based choreography, switching gears in an instant to play military officers, the upper crust, a crowd of rebels.

Arianna Rosario (Eva) is in command from the moment she enters, a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. The part is vocally demanding (LuPone called the score "difficult to sing" in her memoir) and there are moments when the strain in Rosario's voice is obvious. But her evolution, from country girl to a woman of world renown, is fascinating to watch. Omar Lopez-Cepero makes a strong, virile Juan Perón, and the chemistry with his future wife is unmistakable (hardly shocking, since program bios reveal the two are engaged). The searing Trent Saunders gives an intense, out-of-control interpretation of the revolutionary Che.

The only quibble I have with the concept is in the costuming. It simply doesn't make sense that these dissenters, forced to gather in secret, would have amassed all those fancy hats and perfect wigs — and especially that billowing white tulle ballgown Eva wears for "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."  Yes, audiences associate the dress with the song, but in this case, a gown that showed a little wear and tear would have solidified the point. And it would have made the ending, with everyone dropping character — depleted and wrung out from their performances — even more believable.

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