‘Evita’ Seduces at Olney

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Rachel Zampelli as Eva and Robert Ariza as Che.
Rachel Zampelli as Eva and Robert Ariza as Che.

There’s still quite a lot of bite and star quality in the old lady.

That would be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” as in María Eva Duarte de Perón, the Argentine dazzler who rose from nothing and seduced a nation as she moved up the rungs of power to become first lady to President Juan Perón.

Webber’s groundbreaking musical from 1978 is being given a tight, rousing, high-energy production at the Olney Theatre Center through July 24 under the direction of Will Davis, such that it delivers some loud contemporary echoes.

Among many things — stage and screen star, populist political figure, a striver and schemer up from dirt poverty — Eva Perón was a great marketer of herself, who appealed to the working class, the farmers, the desperately poor of her country. By presenting herself as a kind of patron saint of the poor, she made herself into a charismatic political star. Her rush to the top — she became first lady at age 27 — was mind-boggling, soon followed by her death at 33.

Donald Trump comes to mind, although, truth be told, Evita and her story are a lot more interesting than Trump’s unexpected, bulldozing rise from the top to the possible top-top.

In its day, “Evita” marked a sea change not so much in politics as in show business. It’s part of Webber’s invention of a new kind of musical, more like a rock opera, often with a strong and controversial content. His songs insinuate themselves into the narrative, coming back repeatedly in different forms. In some ways, “Evita” represents a high point in the British rock-opera phase of Broadway, though “Phantom of the Opera,” which returns to the Kennedy Center this week, is a more enduringly and broadly popular work.

This production seems fresh and almost brand new, not so much because of its political echo, but because of the more intimate style of the production, with a revved-up energy and an accessible group of performers. Credit some of that to choreographer Christopher d’Amboise, who has his ten-member ensemble executing sharp, sometimes tango-like movements throughout the production. They give extended, atmospheric punctuation to a score that includes solid renditions of some classic songs, including the always memorable “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”

There are some exceptional and unusual performances here. Robert Ariza is especially deft and engaging as the Che character, who’s often seen as an ironic, satiric observer of Evita’s rise to power. Here, he’s more of a ringmaster, a kind of “Cabaret”-like host for the proceedings, with a biting critique but also undisguised admiration for his heroine. Rachel Zampelli in the title role has a high range that is almost a killer; it’s overpowering, breathless and magnetic. This is not a loveable, or even warm, Evita, at least until her ending moments. She’s aggressively seductive and most effective as she sways Perón himself in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You.”

When sharing the stage with Perón (the capable Nick Duckart), Zampelli is sometimes overpowering. She’s sexy, attractive, in her singing exposing Evita’s powerful will. You can see her ambition, but also a kind of transformation. She’s the huckster who finally embraces the ultimate con: that she’s this Dion-like dazzler, for sure, but also a powerful woman with a visceral connection to both the audience and, in character, to the people of Argentina.

The orchestra isn’t huge, but it’s entirely suitable for the material, with plenty of folky, earthy style. But it’s also those dancers, adopting different styles and personas, who push the production along, who bring us into a world that’s gritty, historical, noisy, appealing, but also … right here, right now.

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