Up in Arms

"Just a little touch of star quality" is how the chorus of peasants describes the title character in Evita, just opened by Lyric Stage at the Irving Arts Center. It's one of the slyest jokes in the 1975 Webber-Rice rock opera, which depicts the rise of Eva Duarte Peron, young wife of the post-World War II Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, and her mesmerizing effect on the underclasses. Eva was a megastar, a South American Princess Diana (but to poverty, and not the manor, born). She stage-managed her own evolution from dance-hall whore to radio personality to glamorous first lady. Like Hitler, she understood the power of media to bend the will of the masses, to create legend. She manipulated her public image brilliantly. By the time of her death from uterine cancer in 1952, she was a folk saint to millions.

This is the stuff of grand opera, and like any great operatic role--Evita is all song, no dialogue--she must be played larger than life and with the conviction by the actress wearing Evita's white strapless ballgown that she's a platinum-haired goddess deserving of adulation. By the time we get to that stirring moment on the balcony when triumphant Evita throws her pale arms into the air and sings "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," we should be under her spell.

Some star quality is evident in the work of Catherine Carpenter Cox, a graduate of NYU's distinguished Tisch School of the Arts and a new face on the local theater scene. She's an admirable Evita at Lyric, just not quite grand enough to be considered spellbinding. Cox wears the puffy ballgown comfortably (lovely arms), and she emotes her way through a hell of a death scene, but she's outmatched vocally and dramatically by her male co-stars, Brian Gonzales as the narrator Che, and Blake Davidson as Juan Peron. They command their roles. Cox seems always to be looking for a way to get a handle on hers.

A moderately strong singer, Cox the actress goes for the obvious in too many scenes, something director-choreographer Len Pfluger should have attended to early on. To display anger and lust, Cox's eyes threaten to bug out on stalks, Beetlejuice-style. She ends songs by stomping and snorting audibly like a show pony penned up in a too-small stall. Instead of wowing us with the difficult upper-octave blasts on "Don't Cry for Me," notes that made generations of Broadway worshippers anoint Patti Lupone as their high priestess of the American stage, Cox merely shouts in something approximating power belting. And she raises the eyebrows of purists by pronouncing "Buenos Aires" so that it comes out "Buh-way-nose Eye-raise."

She does have her moments here and there, though, mostly with Gonzales and Davidson, whose lush voices and sharp acting skills make their performances bounce. The lilting duet "High Flying Adored," with the scowling Gonzales as Che squaring off against Cox's suddenly feisty Evita, is tops. Cox then gets her big white teeth and her vibrato-heavy vocal cords into every rich note of "Rainbow High," a prelude to her character's disastrous and much-hyped worldwide "Rainbow Tour."

That song more than some others represents the best work of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, whose partnership on Evita launched them into the stratosphere. First released as a concept album and then developed into a long-running hit in the West End and on Broadway, Evita throbs with originality and attitude, with syncopated rhythms and cunning rhyme schemes. In "Rainbow High," Evita entreats her minions with these words: "I came from the people/They need to adore me/So Christian Dior me/From my head to my toes." And then: "I'm their product/It's vital you sell me/So Machiavell-me...." Genius right there. And even more reason to mourn Rice's fall from grace with such slummy jobs as writing insipid lyrics to Elton John's twaddly tunes in Aida.

Lyric Stage specializes in staging big musicals with big casts on a modest budget. They rent costumes and strip set pieces down to a few rolling scaffolds and some chairs. This has worked in the past on shows such as Ragtime, and it works OK for Evita, although the bare-bones production would have benefited from better lighting than that provided by designer Linda Blase, who's usually more reliable. Maybe it was a rush job that resulted in the stage being so dim (much of the chorus dances in near-darkness). A couple of roving follow-spots aim at the three leads but rarely hit their targets on cue.

Lyric relies less on the visual trappings and more on the voices and the music. They come up a little short there too. Opening night found some head-mike problems making Che hard to hear. And the musicians in the pit, led by musical conductor James McQuillen, might have been suffering from stiff, cold lips on the frigid winter evening. How else to explain the squeaky trumpets and squawky woodwinds? As for the dancing, a few of the back-row hoofers appear to have missed a rehearsal or five.

Just a little touch of star quality says it about right for this Evita then. A little, where a lot is needed.

I don't get over to Fort Worth much, and I'm sorry I waited till the penultimate weekend of its run to see Jubilee Theatre's fine Blues for an Alabama Sky. There's still time to catch it before it closes February 26--and you should.

Pearl Cleage's two-act drama weaves together overlapping story lines about a group of friends in Harlem in the 1930s. Guy Jacobs (Chanina Mwikuta), a gay costume designer, shares his tiny apartment with the blowsy Angel Allen (Evette Perry-Buchanan), a nightclub showgirl with a rep for dating mobsters. Across the hall, the friendly but upright Delia Patterson (Regina Washington) works on plans for the first women's clinic in Harlem. She's courted by the noble Dr. Sam Thomas (William Earl Ray), a handsome physician with do-gooder syndrome. The fifth character, Leland Cunningham (Vincent McGill), is a soft-spoken Alabama carpenter just arrived in Harlem. A chance meeting with Angel convinces him she's the near-reincarnation of his deceased wife. And as it happens, Angel needs some looking after. But is she willing to give up the high life to settle down with the homophobic homeboy?

The play isn't a masterpiece. It's heavy on talk of issues--abortion, gay rights, Prohibition, race politics--and it's full of those illogically convenient entrances and exits that have one character leaving at the exact moment another's arriving. But the fine acting of this good-looking ensemble elevates the thing beyond a sort of "Black Will and Grace Go to Harlem" scenario.

These are characters we don't often see portrayed in plays with African-American themes. Dropping the names Josephine Baker (the great Folies Bergere star) and Langston Hughes (the poet) into their conversations establishes Guy and Angel as members of an elite and decadent demimonde, drinking champagne all day and living way beyond their means (Angel's a lot like Sally Bowles, come to think of it). Guy has a delightful bitchy streak. When one of the ladies dons a dowdy cotton frock, Guy cracks, "That dress has a life of its own, but it's not nightlife, baby."

All of the performances are terrific, but Mwikuta really gives this production a bump with his underplayed turn as Guy. Ray imbues the character of the valiant doctor with a heavy jolt of sex appeal in his gentle seduction of the virginal Delia. McGill effectively peels away the layers of country-boy Leland to reveal a streak of violence that will mean tragedy for one of the couples.

Directed by Sharon Benge, Blues for an Alabama Sky shows that Jubilee Theatre is still thriving after the death last May of its co-founder and artistic director, Rudy Eastman. The production has a nice energy to it and in its darker scenes reminds me of August Wilson's much heavier King Hedley II.

Next up for this company, opening March 24, is an original musical, Diaries of a Barefoot Diva: And Other Tales and Stories From the Ghetto, written by one of Jubilee's favorite actor-singers, Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, with music and lyrics by Joe Rogers. I won't wait till just before it closes to catch that one.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner