Despite the musical Evita's questionable historical accuracy (more than one observer has suggested that having two Englishmen write a play about Eva Peron would be like letting Kenneth Starr write one about Hillary Rodham Clinton — or perhaps Keith Olbermann do one on Sarah Palin), there's no denying the beauty of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and the drama of Tim Rice's lyrics in this opera-style musical.
Both are done to a fine turn by the sizable cast and crew in Richey Suncoast Theatre's production running weekends through March 14, despite the fact that two of the three lead actors — Lexi Balestrieri as Eva Duarte and Paul Gibson as Juan Peron — were battling upper respiratory illnesses on opening night.
The musical, which demands nonstop singing from its leads, is a challenge for those in the best of condition, and Ms. Balestrieri and Gibson deserve highest praises for forging ahead and giving the audience their finest efforts, which are considerable.
Credit excellent support from a remarkable cast and crew, unerring accompaniment by music director Stella Gaukhshteyn's musicians (note especially Marvin Lovett's precision percussion), eye-popping costumes by Marie Skelton (it takes three dressers to help Ms. Balestrieri make 30 complete costume changes, some of them on stage, during the 2-hour, 15-minute show), meticulous choreography by Ms. Skelton, and outstanding direction by Bob Reece to make this production a most enjoyable evening of theater.
Evita is based on the life of Argentina's Eva Duarte, who fled her country village in the late 1930s to pursue an acting career in Buenos Aires and rose to be its most famous and powerful political figure, though she never held elected office.
In the musical, she tags along with third-rate singer Augustin Magldi (Michael Benson), whom she soon drops as she works her way up the entertainment ladder through a series of love affairs.
The action is narrated and events commented upon by a camo-dressed character called Che, played with irony and just a touch of belligerence by Robert M. Tilley, whose excellent voice and body language capture the mood of the moment perfectly.
Eva meets the rather unambitious Juan at a fundraiser, where they perform a vocal tango as dancers Jeff Oles and Caitlin Ramirez do a real tango to match the progress of the flirtation.
Eva urges Juan to seek power, even as he dreams of idly playing cards and leading a life of leisure on a safe beach somewhere. Soon, Eva becomes the star, turning from a beautiful brunette to a stunning blond and wowing crowds as she tours post-war Europe.
The musical is filled with memorable moments, highlighted by Ms. Balestrieri's energetic Buenos Aires, mellow I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You, confident Rainbow High, poignant The Actress Hasn't Learned the Lines, dying Lament and, of course, the elegant Don't Cry for Me, Argentina.
Gibson is exemplary as the haughty Peron, who is dazzled by Eva, though not enough to buck the aristocrats and colonels and make her his vice president. His strong baritone shines in the anthemic A New Argentina, proud Rainbow Tour and She Is a Diamond, and fearful Dice are Rolling.
Young Molly Nugent is touching as Peron's deposed mistress (Another Suitcase in Another Hall). The Youth Ensemble is sweetly appealing as they sing Santa Evita.
A tweak or two — more illumination at the edges of the stage for the actors who are making major points, more volume for the generals during The Art of the Possible, for example — would make this show just right.
Everything else, including the minimalist backdrops and sets that let the audience focus on the actors and story, is already there.