Review: Tacoma Musical Playhouse nails production of ‘Evita’

Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s production of “Evita” is outstanding in every way. The set by Bruce Haasl and lighting by John Chenault are stunning, and the lead actors are outstanding.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, “Evita” captured seven Tony Awards when it played on Broadway.

“Evita” is the story of Eva Perón (Alena Menefee), an aspiring actress and singer who sleeps her way to fame and fortune, marries Argentine President Juan Perón (Jonathan Bill), is seen by the people as a hero and a saint, and dies young and tragically.

The mood is set majestically with an amazing opening number, “Requiem,” performed by the ensemble in front of and behind scrims that hold projected video of the real Eva and her compatriots. The blend of action, music, video imagery and lighting in this and the followings scenes, “Oh What a Circus” and “On the Night of a Thousand Stars,” are musical theater at its finest.

“Requiem” tells of the tragic death of Eva. In “Oh What a Circus” we meet Che (Rafe Wadleigh), the everyman narrator who is cynical, angry and seemingly the only person who can see through the political posturing. The third of these opening scenes takes place when Che mentions, quite snidely, that Eva met a tango singer, and we open on a club where Augustin Magaldi (Jeff Barehand) is singing. The opening of this scene is a visual marvel that looks like a baroque painting, and Barehand sings terrifically.

From this auspicious beginning, the cast takes us through the stormy life of Eva Perón. It is anything but light musical comedy. It is highly dramatic with dark scenes sparked by moments of subtle but sparkling humor and music with Latin and jazz influences.

The oh-so-subtle comic relief comes primarily from sly expressions from Che, and from small but precious bits in the background by ensemble actor Samantha Camp. Francesca Guecia also steps out of the background and into the spotlight when she solos superbly on the song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” as Juan Perón’s mistress.

As Eva, Menefee is expressive and has a strong and lovely voice. Bill presents a strong if somewhat stiff Juan Perón, with a deep and resonant voice. Wadleigh absolutely steals the show. He has a commanding presence, a range of moves and expressions that nail the characters, and a clear and powerful singing voice.

The most famous song in the show is “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which Menefee sings beautifully from a balcony. One of the most delightful songs is “Waltz for Eva and Che,” a kind of musical standoff or duel between Menefee and Wadleigh. Other outstanding songs are “You Must Love Me” and “Lament,” both solos by Menefee.

This may well be the hit musical of the season in South Puget Sound. I definitely recommend it.