By Manning Harris
For the third summer in a row Serenbe Playhouse is creating musical theatre magic outdoors in the fields and hills of Serenbe near Chattahoochee Hills and Palmetto, just south of Atlanta. In 2013 (the year I discovered them) there was “Hair,” shining, gleaming, straight out of Woodstock. Last summer an unforgettable “Oklahoma!” sang and danced its way into Atlanta theatre history.
This summer Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1980 Tony Award-winning “Evita” is holding court until August 16, directed by Brian Clowdus and featuring the luminous Randi Garza as the magnetic, doomed Eva Perón, who was Argentina’s First Lady until her death at age 33 in 1952. The best part of “Evita” is watching Ms. Garza negotiate the climb.
Not that she is without terrific support; on the contrary, Clowdus has cast this show superbly. More about them in a moment.
You may know the essentially true story: An illegitimate 15-year-old girl named Eva Duarte leaves small town Argentina for Buenos Aires with nothing but her good looks and fierce ambition to make good in the big city. “Hello, Buenos Aires!” she sings. She wants to be a radio and film actress.
She also has passion, tenacity, and keen intelligence, all of which serve her well. She becomes a well-known radio actress and ten years after her arrival in Buenos Aires meets Colonel Juan Perón (a fine performance by César Augusto) and tells him “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You.” You know what? She’s right.
It’s a match made, if not in heaven, in the kingdom of very good sense. They both have a genuine rapport (though hers is stronger) with the descamisados, “the shirtless ones,” the low-income working class Argentines. Perón is almost as ambitious as Eva, and he needs her knife-sharp mind and survival instincts to become President. It happens.
Before all this Eva had a dalliance with tango singer Augustin Magaldi, well sung by Chase Peacock (“On This Night of a Thousand Stars”). In a humorous moment Eva gives the heave-ho to Perón’s mistress (Ally Duncan), who ruefully knows it’s time for “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
From the very first, the play’s action is commented on by Ché, beautifully played and sung by the dashing Charlie Brady. Ché is cynical and sardonic, and I’ve always found him rather a pain—even 35 years ago when I saw the original Broadway show.
He’s always pointing out Eva’s faults and foibles. I mean, give a girl a chance; yes, sexual favors and keen intelligence may have helped her along the way, but so what? No one’s perfect. Eva’s got “just a little bit of star quality,” and you want to root for her. She’s not going to be around very long, anyway. Ironically, the “Waltz for Eva and Che” is a lovely, romantic high point.
Fortunately, with Randi Garza as Evita, we do get to root for her. Ms. Garza acts, dances, and sings up a storm. She doesn’t miss a note in a score that is notoriously difficult to sing. The always frank Patti LuPone, Broadway’s original Evita, has said “I was screaming my way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women.” It took LuPone months to adjust her vocal technique to sing the role without straining her voice.
Only one thing puzzles me about the production: Moriah and Isabel Curley Clay, the creators of many a beautiful set on Atlanta’s stages, have here designed a sort of thrust stage where the audience is sitting three quarters around the playing area. It is visually arresting, but it makes audience intimacy with the characters quite tricky to achieve. Depending on where you’re sitting, you may or may not be able to have genuine contact with a character.
This arrangement would seem to make the actor’s job a bit more difficult. It may be that I’m just old-fashioned and generally prefer the proscenium style.
But I do believe that for “Evita” to soar, “You Must Love Me.” We must love Eva, and I did. I’m for anything that enhances intimacy and empathy between audience and performer.
Another interesting thing I observed: I found it oddly moving when sometimes Ms. Garza would change costumes on stage, in dim lighting but in full view of the audience. She wore a slip underneath. But somehow this changing in front of us made me feel Evita’s vulnerability and determination at the same time. I doubt if this effect was an accident; director Clowdus leaves very little to chance.
As expected, Bubba Carr’s choreography was superb. No one is better at getting professional-looking performances from actors who may not be professional dancers; and here Carr asked a lot—and his dancers delivered.
The orchestra, led by music director Chris Brent Davis, sounded heavenly; and they and the singers were aided by Daniel Pope’s fine sound design. Erik Teague and Abby Parker designed beautiful costumes. Ryan Oliveti is the assistant director.
Besides the actors already mentioned, the excellent ensemble includes Shelby Folks, Jaclyn Helms, Nathan Lubeck, Jenna Jackson, Cherise James, AJ Klopach, Shannon McCarren, Becca Potter, David-Aaron Roth, and Terrence Smith.
“Evita” has become a legendary show, as is the woman for whom it is named. That it exists at night in the Georgia countryside at a place called Serenbe is a minor miracle.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.