Asolo Rep stages a thrilling and inventive 'Evita'

Jay Handelman
Ana Isabelle takes an iconic pose as Eva Peron in the Asolo Repertory Theatre production of "Evita." [Asolo Rep photo / Rod Millington]

You may legitimately quibble about the subject matter or loathe the actions of the title character, but there’s no denying that the Asolo Repertory Theatre production of “Evita” is a stunning achievement.

The 1979 Broadway hit by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice about the rapid rise and sudden death of Argentina’s First Lady Eva Peron, takes on a welcome new look under the inventive hand of director and choreographer Josh Rhodes, who staged last season’s glorious revival of “Guys and Dolls.”

Rhodes tosses aside memories of the original staging by Harold Prince in favor of a production that dances — almost floats, at times — as much as it sings to the now-familiar Lloyd Webber score. His large ensemble barely stops moving (or changing characters and costumes) and there are rarely moments that even hint at how the musical has been presented in the past.

There are gorgeous and occasionally jaw-dropping images to savor from the opening scene — when a crowd of moviegoers is interrupted by the news that their sainted Eva has died at age 33 — to the beautifully tender tableau that brings the show to a solemn conclusion.

Everything from Paul Tate DePoo III’s grungy yet eye-popping sets (a seemingly crumbling brick back wall, and a high-rise staircase that becomes the balcony where Eva sings “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”) to Brian C. Hemesath’s elegant, plentiful and occasionally clever costumes and Paul Miller’s impactful lighting, work as one to tell the story.

And in Ana Isabelle, a Puerto Rican pop recording star, Rhodes has found a fierce actress with the kind of natural radiance to make you believe this Eva could captivate a nation. Isabelle plays a manipulative woman who grew up resenting the rich, and then slept her way up the ladder to become a popular actress and eventually the spiritual leader for the nation’s poor. She meets Col. Juan Peron and they quickly forge a partnership that leads them to the presidential palace and popularity until illness weakens her.

Isabelle is a fireball of energy packed into a small body. She has a powerful voice that is momentarily strident in a couple numbers in the challenging and high-ranging score but is always filled with the emotions, drama and humor of the lyrics. She doesn’t miss an opportunity to draw you in.

And Rhodes keeps her busy. Even when she’s singing at full throttle, he has her dancing with the ensemble and a beautifully suggestive and elegant tango couple (Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia) who steam up and add emotion to several scenes.

She also tangos with a vibrant Justin Gregory Lopez, who plays the show’s narrator and political commentator, Che, portrayed as a variation of the real-life revolutionary Che Guevera. He also has a strong voice and brings ferocity and intensity to several scenes, but even when they’re doing battle, it’s hard to take your eyes away from Isabelle. The production also incorporates the song “You Must Love Me,” that was written for Madonna and the 1996 film version. It primarily serves as a background for a beautiful tango.

As Juan Peron, Nick Duckart provides a grounded and steady strength that’s a counterpoint to Isabelle’s emotionally captivating Eva.

Victor Souffrant brings a good deal of humor and an intentionally cheesy style to his role as the tango singer Magaldi, who first introduces Eva to Buenos Aires. And Gizel Jimenez makes you feel for Peron’s ousted mistress in her one scene, singing “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”

Though “Evita” is not naturally or usually a dance show, Rhodes has choreographed some lively routines that always speak to the politics or social status of the characters. And during “Rainbow Tour,” some of Hemesath's costumes change with just a touch of fabric almost before you realize what happened.

DePoo’s sets provide their own surprises as pieces are wheeled or flown in, giving it a constantly changing look. Rhodes and Miller use the lighting design as characters when military leaders battle for supremacy during “The Art of the Possible.” The staging of big crowd scenes is embellished both by Will Pickens’ sound design and the projections of arenas and Eva created by Alex Basco Koch.

And that hard-working ensemble sounds terrific under the musical direction of Sinai Tabak, who leads an orchestra of 13.

All these elements work together in an effortless manner as if there were no other way they could exist, spinning something new and different out of the familiar and creating one of the most thrilling musical productions Asolo Rep has staged in the last decade.


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Reviewed Nov. 18, Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Through Dec. 30. 941-351-8000;