Creating the illusion of a cast of thousands with just a dozen or so performers is no small task.
But director Eric Rosen makes it look easy in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s season opener, “Evita,” which chronicles the rise and fall in the 1940s of Argentina’s beautiful, calculating and mostly irresistable first lady, Eva Peron.
You might call this a cabaret version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1978 rock opera (their third after “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”) but that implies smallness. This production is anything but.
It certainly doesn’t look small. Jack Magaw’s scenic design — a sort of double-decker cloister — provides not only several playing areas but also a series of screens on which vintage photos and newsreels (created by Jason H. Thompson) of the real Eva Peron are projected almost nonstop.
And heaven knows the sound isn’t small. Yes, Anthony T. Edwards leads a septet rather than a full orchestra. It makes for a rather tinny sound in the overture, but once the songs kick in they play like a well-oiled dance combo.
And the voices...this production has been blessed with superb pipes for all the major roles.
Rep newcomer Mariand Torres (who will perform through Sept. 20, when Jenny Ashman takes over) brings an operatic intensity to the role of Eva, the working-class girl who slept her way to the top and became an inspiration for her country’s huddled masses.
Augmented by Lindsay W. Davis’ costumes, which help her mutate from dance hall girl to glamorpuss, Torres effectively mines both sides of Eva’s persona. For much of the show Eva is a ruthless social climber. But once she occupies the presidential bedroom she seems almost ennobled by her belief in herself.
That transformation comes to a head in the popular “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” In this version Eva sings from a balcony which rolls forward until she’s towering over the front row of theatergoers. It’s a moment of breath-catching grandeur that helps explain why so many of her countrymen became suckers for her. We happily buy in as well.
Keeping us anchored to reality, though, is Che, a cynical Every Man who sees through Eva’s manipulations and sarcastically disses her rise. He’s played by telenovela star Mauricio Martinez, who exudes clouds of testosterone (he’s a beefcake version of an incense-burning censer) and possesses what is probably the best voice in the show.
For starters, he’s got perfect diction and has been so carefully miked that every word of Che’s tongue-twisting lyrics come through loud and clear. But just wait until his incendiary Act II showcase “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” where he unleashes a speaker-shredding falsetto that blows the audience back in their seats.
More great singing: Nick Duckart is solid as Juan Peron, a halfhearted dictator who probably never would have had the guts to take over a country if not for the woman at his side.
Tim Scott is simultaneously tuneful, dopey and a bit slimy as the provincial crooner who became the first rung on Eva’s climb to fame.
And Emily Shackelford, as Peron’s displaced mistress, has only one song, but it’s a showstopper. “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is an achingly sad tune about not knowing where to turn next. On opening night it got one of the evening’s biggest ovations.
The members of the ensemble keep the action going through dance and general movement (the choreography is by Darrell Grand Moultrie). Marching soldiers, tango dancers, a sea of fervent Peron supporters...it all comes to a head in the Act I closer, “A New Argentina.” Fascism never felt so compelling.
But then the marvel of “Evita” is that nearly 40 years after its creation it is still timely. In this political year the show’s display of cynical populism seems torn from today’s headlines.
Like Che, we don’t know whether to cheer or jeer. Probably a bit of both.