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When I learned that Burning Coal Theatre's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita was to be performed in the Dorothea Dix Park, I admit to idle speculation on what I was to witness. I had visions of an amphitheater newly constructed in a greenway; I imagined it could be a small, intimate setting of about 100 seats or even a broader structure of wide, curved seating arching down to a stage. What we actually got was far from my imagined setting. When one remembers that Dorothea Dix Hospital was a psychiatric institution and home for mentally ill patients, it is easier to envision where we gathered for this performance. Audience seating of about 80 folding chairs faced a plain, elevated stage that was about a foot off the ground, but it was its placement that brought on our trepidation. Surrounding the small courtyard on three sides was an imposing edifice of brick and barred windows. Our host, Jerome Davis, Artistic Director of Burning Coal and the show's director, informed us that this was indeed an abandoned prison; we were left to speculate on whose authority a stage might be built in such a setting.
Nevertheless, a play was what we had come to see and, indeed, a play is what we got: a superb performance of excellent voices numbering 17 cast members. There are only four identified characters to Evita; the rest of the ensemble play the People of Argentina, whose fickle love for Eva Peron spans the gamut from fawning adoration to healthy skepticism. The four named characters are Magaldi, a leader of The People (George Jack); The Mistress, named because of her one solo, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" (Abbe Fralix); Eva Duarte Peron (Iliana Rivera); and Juan Peron (Steven Roten). The only other character in the play who is recognizable is Che, whose notoriety is rivaled only by Eva herself, and whose face is emblazoned on bright red shirts worn by the cast.
Evita is, of course, a musical retelling of the rise to fame and power of Eva Duarte, a young woman whose rise was meteoric, and famed because she became the wife of leader Juan Peron, who came to power in Argentina during the 1940s. Eva Peron, however, came from such humble beginnings that, despite the fact that it was Juan Peron who led Argentina for a short time, it is only because of the love the People had for his wife – which was greater than any love they had for him – that we come to know him at all. Eva was at times known to be synonymous with her country and represented it across the world. But she is known and beloved as much for her untimely demise as for her leadership. Eva died of a lingering illness on July 26, 1952, while still a relatively young woman. Ironically, because she was not able to fulfill all the promises she purportedly made to her People, by the time of her death, there were already rumblings of discontent that she was not the woman they had so spectacularly driven to power.
Act I of Evita tells of her beginnings as a singer in a nightclub and how she gained her notoriety by choosing men who could expand her popularity, whom she then abandoned each in turn for one who could raise her higher. Here in the club is also where we meet Magaldi, whose beginnings were much the same as Eva's. His own rise to fame was only slightly less Eva's, mainly because it was on her coattails that he did so. Eva also meets her future husband in Act I, and their many duets, backed superbly by this ensemble, fill Act I with their telling of how this pair became the ruling family of Argentina.
Burning Coal manages to overcome the pitfalls of outdoor theatre with an impressive array of lights, many racks of costumes, and a set made up only of bentwood dining chairs. Also dotting the perimeter of the stage are the many placards carried by the People as they propelled Eva and her husband to power. With only these, and the requisite mic’s for each voice, this cast manages to thrill us with their song and dance in this stunning biography. Eva herself has many elegant and superior solos; clad for most of the show only in a simple white slip, she is dressed for each scene directly on stage by other members of the cast. This rather unusual means of dress eliminates a number of pauses in the momentum of the script and keeps the forward motion barreling toward its well-known but still stunning conclusion.
While we know that this is a story about one woman, it is the ensemble itself that drives this show. These 17 voices are all stellar, both singly and when mingled so expertly together. Whether coming together in small trios or quartets, or raising all their voices together, this powerhouse propels us along as resolutely as they do this couple whose biography they describe for us. We cannot help but be surprised and delighted by these superior vocalists.
The still-strong afternoon sun lingers long into the evening and we are in such close quarters in the small courtyard that only after the first hour of the performance do we notice the light failing. As the electronic lights illuminate Act II, this cast takes it all in stride and overcomes a myriad of obstacles that performing outside provides. Despite the imposing and overbearing brick walls that surrounded us, we were nonetheless drawn completely into this microcosm of politics and power. Burning Coal has proven to us all once again that it is a force to be reckoned with in Triangle theatre, bringing this stirring musical to stunning life on stage.
Evita runs through Sunday, June 27 at Dorothea Dix Park, just off Western Boulevard. If you are struggling with the location, you can Google a map of the park and its environs; it aided me in my efforts to locate the show. The address is 1030 Richardson Street, between the park itself and Western Boulevard; Hunt Drive is a good entry off the highway. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.