Mariand Torres has always wanted to play Eva Peron.
In her most recent stint onstage — the retrospective “Prince of Broadway” in Japan — she sang two songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about the famous first lady of Argentina, including the crowd-pleaser “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” When that run ended, she knew she couldn’t let Eva go.
So she auditioned for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new production and found herself in the barbecue capital of the world for the first time ever — playing her dream role.
“Eva Peron was so strong,” Torres said last week between rehearsals at the Rep. “She was this woman who wasn’t afraid of men and did what she wanted and what she believed in. I’ve always wanted to play this role for that reason.”
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Torres will lead a cast of fellow Latino actors in the Rep’s production of “Evita” beginning Sept. 9. She plays opposite her real-life boyfriend, Nick Duckart, as Juan Peron, and Mexican TV star Mauricio Martinez as narrator Che Guevara in his first theatrical appearance in the United States.
The show, with lyrics by Tim Rice, won the Tony for best musical in 1980. It follows Eva from her early days of poverty to her climb to the top of Argentinian society as an actress and eventual first lady. With her husband at her side, the two political leaders spearheaded a labor movement backed by the working class.
Director Eric Rosen, who’s also the Rep’s artistic director, said the company chose the show a year ago to coincide with the presidential election. But he never predicted how closely it would mirror real life.
“The rise and fall of Peronism matches some of the themes on all sides of the election,” he said. On the one hand, there’s the populism. And, he said, “having a powerful woman at the center of the political movement … it’s incredibly relevant to look at the show now.”
Unlike most productions of the show, which cast white actors (Madonna played Eva in the movie version), the Rep’s cast is mainly Latino. Torres is Dominican, Duckart is Argentinian and Martinez is Mexican.
“I feel really proud to be playing a strong Latin woman, especially at this particular time in our country’s history with the current election. All you hear is ‘racism’ and ‘race,’ ” she said. “It’s nice to play a strong and successful Latina.”
Accurately representing the diversity of Kansas City is part of Rosen’s goal for the Rep. The theater will once again present Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” in March with a cast of “the best African-Americans in Kansas City,” he said, and will include a play about Native Americans by Larissa FastHorse as part of its OriginKC New Works Festival in the spring.
The theater will also invite local high schools for day performances of “Raisin” to promote a conversation about segregation and race.
“We want the stage to look like the city in which we live,” Rosen said.
In addition to casting authentically, Rosen’s production of “Evita” will be smaller than its big-budget predecessors, from Broadway to KC’s Music Hall. The cast is only 10 adult actors, and the show will include backdrop video from the Peronist movement — “a movie going on behind the actors,” he said. It’s all part of his desire to show political movements as passionate, charged events.
For Torres, who calls New York City her home, performing in Kansas City is a nice break from the pressure of making a hit show. At 33, she’s the age Eva was when she died of cancer, and Torres said she enjoys playing a woman her own age.
Acting opposite her boyfriend is another perk.
“We’re big nerds about it,” she said. “We practice our dance moves in the hotel with our puppy sitting around watching us.”