Because they’re doing just fine with a very enjoyable production of Evita which plays on weekends until May 13.  I saw it on Saturday night, and they did a great job with a very difficult musical play.

I have fond memories of the musical from my youth.  Not that I really think it’s all that thought provoking or brilliant.  It just passed in front of me at a formative moment in my senior year of high school.  I saw it at the Orpheum with a young woman friend who also liked the dancing and music even though it was, in her words, “a Broadway glorification of fascism.”  I do miss dating young radical women, as annoying and dogmatic as some of them were.

Of course, until my generation passes, you’ll have to hear lots of “it’ll never be the same without Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone in the lead parts,” and everything will always be compared to their production – which began on Broadway in 1979.  I saw it on one of the later tours in 1982 in front of a liberal San Francisco audience, during the Falklands War, so that when LuPone uttered her line, “if the King of England can do without the lady of Argentina, then Argentina can do without England,” the whole audience cheered despite the faulty context. (more below the fold)

I saw it again at the Orpheum with Jana in the mid-1990s, when the producers actually took the novel approach of casting Hispanics for the parts.  And I’m sure the crowd was as liberal as the first, but there’s always a bit of audience awkwardness around the Che character as the New Left fascination with the real life figure fades into history and with it the context in which the character was formed.

For those of you who never saw it, Evita is about Eva Peron who was the wife of authoritarian Argentinian leader Colonel Juan Peron.  In the early version of the play, Che sings a line about Peron and his coalition which went, “they thought that Hitler had the war just as good as won, they were slightly to the right of Attila the Hun,” in a song that was essentially a political history summary of the regime and later replaced with a much more generic “Art of the Possible.”  This is to let us know that we’re talking about a country typically run by a military junta through the subject times.  Anyway, Eva Peron’s populist speeches and antics are viewed by history as having been of great political benefit to her husband, and that’s what the play is about.  Pretty much.  I don’t know how accurate the play’s history is.  I’ve never really read much about it, except that Peron was fairly brutal in his leadership, which is dealt with at some level in the play, though they never really get to the details (such as helicopters dumping drugged or dead opposition into the ocean in large numbers and some of them washing ashore).  They were also well in power as Nazi war criminals swarmed into the country in the post-war years, and the regime certainly didn’t take any major steps to discourage them.  And of course in order for a right wing Junta to benefit from union support, the unions had to be purged, and that wasn’t a pretty sight.  And the play mentions the suppression of La Prensa, but the censorship went well beyond that single paper.  On the other hand, contrary to the implication of the play, Argentina was rationing beef even before they were in power – that wasn’t Eva’s fault.  And they did, as suggested, push the English out of their industries.

Anyway, back to the Che character.  He never actually met Eva Peron, and he wasn’t even politically active at the time (as suggested by the God-awful Evita movie where she was played by Madonna).  He was a teenager when the Perons came to power, and in med school when she died.  As a character, he is a caricature actually – playing the Jiminy Cricket to Eva’s Pinocchio.  He is treated somewhat sympathetically and with the cool factor associated with New Left adoration, but criticized for shallowness and irrelevance (late in the play she tells him, “go if your able to somewhere unstable – whip up your hate in some tottering state, but not here dear…”).  The depiction drew ire from both the C.P. fellow traveler  crowd  and cold warriors who decry anything other than a completely negative depiction (such as the old right wing movie Che!, filmed shortly after his death – but I already talked about that one in another post).

The problem is that the treatment of Che requires a certain knowledge and understanding of nuance, and since his death in 1967 he’s gone from New Left icon (lots of the famous silhouette prints on dorm room walls of students who never bothered to learn that the real person actually presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first executions) to obscurity, with only a brief mention in a 1984 Presidential campaign debate where Mondale tried to show everyone he could be as anti-communist as Reagan by referring to Che as a “despicable figure.”  He did get some nuanced treatment in several recent Benicio Del Torro films, but I suspect that the audience was fairly limited.

So basically, the following generations know him as some sort of communist revolutionary, and they expect him to be some sort of villain.  So in the 1990s, as opposed to 1982, few in the audience laughed at his jokes.  I think the character is a source of confusion (which is why the Antonio Banderas movie version was considerably dumbed down with historical inaccuracy).  The later versions don’t have him in military garb with the trademark beret.  Ferndale has him in black suspenders over a white shirt!

My second visit was also marred by waiting in line listening to this idiot trying to impress his date with his profound grasp of history.  He explained to her that “Evita meant well, but she supported bigger government with higher taxes….yada, yada.”  I was praying for the Annie Hall scenario, but alas, I let him alone in the comfort of his provincialism.  I wonder if it got him laid that night.

Oh, were you expecting a review?  I was surprised at the talent – the main three characters were played excellently.  It’s difficult to sing that long. and Steve Nobles was losing his voice towards the end.  I suggest you sit towards the front and to the right of the stage (from audience perspective) away from the band.  Che tended to hang out over there, and you can hear him over the band more easily.  Elena Tessler played the main role, and I have to say she did it flawlessly and added a sexual texture that Patti LuPone avoided.  Jaison Chand was flawless as well.  The strongest voice belongs to the young Craig Waldvogel who played an excellent Magaldi (the singer who is historically give credit for discovering Evita and bringing her from the sticks to Buenos Aires.  And the entire supporting cast was brilliant.  The props were clever, and the stage management awesome.  Well worth the trip and money!

Back to the politics of the play.  Yeah, it is a Broadway glorification of fascism.  Webber and Rice’s politics are liberal for the most part, but they kind of glossed over the brutality of the situation as if it was just a minor part of the story.  As Eva explains to Che late in the play, she didn’t make the rules, she just plays by them.  Someone was going to be a fascist leader of the country, and it might as well have been her.  No, it’s not very deep.

And it’s sexist as Hell.  Patti LuPone doesn’t have fond memories, even though her performance made her career.  Wikipedia quotes her from an interview:  “‘Evita’ was the worst experience of my life,” she said. “I was screaming my way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women.”

She describes constant fights with the producers.  It’s pretty sexist, but it’s far from the worst I’ve seen.  Of course, she may have won a few of those fights with the producers.

Anyway, go see it.  Tell me what you think.