photo by Jill Ritter

Play: “Evita”

Group: New Line Theatre

Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road

Dates: July 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, 31

Tickets: From $10 to $15; contact 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com

Story: An audience is viewing a film in a Buenos Aires cinema in 1952 when an announcer interrupts with the news that Argentine President Juan Peron’s wife, Eva, has “entered immortality” at age 33. While the shocked people express their grief with tears and prayers, an observer dressed in military fatigues derisively comments upon the colorful life of the impoverished girl who rose from obscurity to a career as a fledgling actress and performer who caught the eye of the head of state of Argentina and became his second wife. While ostracized by the upper class and military leaders, she was the darling of the common people until her untimely death.

Highlights: The fourth and final (to date) collaboration between lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber began, like their earlier effort “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as a concept album before becoming a smash hit in London’s West End and shortly thereafter on Broadway, winning multiple awards along the way.

Having neither the space nor the quantity of musicians to present the full orchestration of Lloyd Webber’s music, New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller wisely focuses instead on a sextet of players who provide passionate, intense support for the performers on stage. Aided by the delicious support of choreographer Robin Michelle Berger, who accentuates the array of musical motifs with an eclectic mix of terpsichorean moves, the result is an engaging and absorbing account of not only one man’s (lyricist Rice) interpretation of a time and place but a riveting theatrical experience.

Other Info: Miller’s nifty production is anchored by a sizzling performance by John Sparger as the ubiquitous narrator, Che. While experts wave off any reference to legendary guerilla fighter Che Guevara, such dismissal is a bit disingenuous at the least. Regardless, Sparger’s mannerisms, expressions and gesticulations all convey both Che’s bemusement and his cynicism. While his voice lacks sheer power and often is strained to handle Lloyd Webber’s difficult notes, he nonetheless shapes tunes such as the sardonic “Oh, What a Circus,” the pensive ballad, “High Flying Adored” and the acerbic “And the Money Kept Rolling In” with heart and soul that infuse the lyrics with pungency and passion.

Taylor Pietz demonstrates her glorious pipes in the title role, richly resonating on the beautiful ballad, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” the stirring “Rainbow High” and the show’s best-known tune, the haunting “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” While her acting is passable, it’s her considerable skill with a tune that carries her performance. As Juan Peron, Todd Schaefer dials down his usual magnetism to convey the ‘second-fiddle’ style of the stolid and somewhat bland president who consistently is outshined by his glamorous and charismatic younger wife. A true highlight is watching Schaefer and Pietz dance effortlessly to the strains of “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.”

There’s excellent supporting work by Terrie Carolan as Peron’s mistress, providing a splendid rendition of the ballad, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” after she is unceremoniously dumped by her lover, and by Zachary Allen Farmer as singer/musician Agustin Magaldi, who is used by Eva on her rise to the top.

Thom Crain’s costumes expertly convey not only Evita’s glamour but also the drab dress of the proletariat. Schaefer’s spartan set design brackets the action with larger-than-life portraits of modern American politicians who remind us that the similarities between mid-20th century Argentina and 21st century America may outweigh their differences, with a large cross on the floor emphasizing Argentina’s Christian influence. Kenneth Zinkl, Robert Healey and Trish Bakula provide satisfactory lighting, sound and props, respectively.

Special thanks are in order for the crisp and crackling New Line band, which overcame the sound system’s often tinny timbre with fierce accompaniment, including the efforts of conductor and pianist Chris Petersen, guitarist Mike Bauer, Dave Hall on bass, percussionist Clancy Newell, trumpeter Cliff Phillips and Robert Vinson on reeds.

Others contributing to the stirring impact of the performance include Aaron Allen, Tyla Daniels, Mike Dowdy, Macia Noorman, Jeanitta Perkins, Eeyan Richardson, David Sajewich, Michelle Sauer, Kimi Short and Christopher Strawhun.

Miller’s “Evita” is visceral, raucous and always entertaining, bringing out the best in Lloyd Webber’s complex and diverse score and underscoring Rice’s sophisticated and compelling lyrics in clever fashion.

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.