From the moment we first see Evita Peron, we realize that this remarkable figure who once captivated Argentina as its First Lady is a presence at her own funeral. But with Janine Divita embodying the role, we immediately grasp the power and the fragility, the strength and the vulnerability, that made this woman who she was. And that’s just in the opening minutes of this richly entertaining, imaginative production at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.
The credit has to go to Divita, who has the voice, the range and the moves required to pull us through what is really a political science lecture—if not a shallow history lesson—set to the tango. This Tony-award winning musical, which opened on Broadway in 1979, was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyrics were created by Tim Rice, who was also the playwright.
We get an initial taste of the trademark tune, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and then we are whisked back in time so we can watch the trajectory the young and ruthless Maria Eva Duarte took from being a small town dancer born out of wedlock to standing at the balcony of the president’s mansion in Buenos Aires.
An aspiring actress, she had obtained some success on the radio when she caught Juan Peron’s attention at a charity function in 1943—artfully recreated on the small stage of the Engelman Theater. Then Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare and a widower, Peron was an ambitious colonel and with Eva by his side—they married in 1945—he soon became president and she his First Lady. As played by Bruce Winant, Peron is shown as a calculating middle-aged man who needs her almost more than she needs him. There’s chemistry between them, but all eyes are on Divita whenever she’s on stage.
Not unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, Evita championed the poor and the working class of Argentina, as well as women’s suffrage. They finally got the vote in 1947—an achievement that has to be attributed to her. Unquestionably, she became the most influential woman in South American politics, earning the devotion of the downtrodden and the enmity of the elites.
Telling her story, almost like her superego, is a character simply called Che, as in Che Guevara. The famous revolutionary—and native Argentine—may not have had any interaction with the real Eva Peron when they lived but on stage, as portrayed by Aaron C. Finely, he’s an ingratiating, cynical and sinewy figure who weaves through the dance numbers with grace and whose voice has a pop quality that is truly affecting. He’s fun to behold, especially when he’s ushering Evita’s lovers in and out of her bed as she climbs her way to the top. It’s a tastefully executed scene and theatrically ingenious.
Over the years the title role has drawn the likes of Madonna and Patti Lupone, a Northport High School graduate. It requires a lot from a star, and Divita—who’s been on Broadway in “Grease,” “Anything Goes,” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”—clearly shines in the spotlight and glows in the shadows of the dark reaches of Evita Peron’s soul. Also worth mentioning are Ruben Perez as the singer who gives Evita her ticket out of her small town trap and Ashley Perez Flanagan as Peron’s mistress summarily evicted by Evita when she consolidates her power in love and politics. Flanagan does a stirring rendition of the other show-stopping tune, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” As an interesting side note, she is actually the daughter of New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-Smithtown).
Evita Peron was only 33 when she died of cancer in 1952. The national bereavement was stunning to behold. Directed by Igor Goldin, this top-notch production, which runs Thursdays through Sundays until Nov. 2, does its best to explain why she struck such a chord. It should not be missed.
For more information, call the box office at 631-261-2900 or go to engemantheater.com