Cincinnati Landmark Productions has converted a one-time West Side cinema into a fine theatrical venue, the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, and the group’s ninth season kicks off with an ambitious production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, the tale of the charismatic, controversial Argentine first lady Eva Perón.
The Covedale benefits from an excellent system for sound amplification, so every word sung by Brook Rucidlo (pictured as Eva), Michael Shawn Starks (Che Guevara) and Mike Sherman (Juan Perón) comes across clearly. Each is a strong vocalist, and this show — which is more sung than spoken — has a hard-working chorus, the members of which play numerous roles and sing and dance from start to finish. (Choreography is by Matthew Wilson.)
So why did I come away wishing for more? A fundamental challenge every director must face at the Covedale is the broad expanse of a stage that once supported a wide movie screen. Wilson’s choreography uses the space well, and the dancers feel well rehearsed, but director Greg Procaccino distributes performers from side to side and on elevated platforms. Although it’s a cast of 18, they feel sparse when spread out, not the kind of massed crowds that would add energy to scenes when Eva appeals to the masses. Even more troublesome are moments when central characters have so much distance between them that it diminishes the emotional potency of their interaction.
The size of the stage also means that scene changes take a few moments. Procaccino clearly emphasized to his stagehands the importance of keeping the show moving.
But Webber and Rice’s script often stops abruptly, not evoking applause to end a scene and leaving an awkward pause. Into that flat void there is frequently a hurried scene transition, nonetheless long enough to make the flow of the production feel fitful.
Since Evita begins with the central character’s funeral, there’s not much of a surprise at the ending, but the dry recitation of her body’s posthumous fate led a man sitting behind me to say, “Is that it?” as the cast came out for curtain calls.
Rucidlo has a lovely voice and the physical beauty to play Eva, but she’s a young performer. The early scenes work well as the young woman manipulates her way out of a forlorn province and lands in Buenos Aires and begins to work her “star quality.” But when her schemes are slowed by political resistance and physical frailty, Rucidlo’s sweet charm is not enough to convince.
Starks is solid as the narrator Che, standing by to proffer cynical comments on Eva’s rise to power, and his vocal prowess does much to hold the show together. (Costuming by Caren Young is appropriate throughout, but Starks’ outfit as Che never looks quite revolutionary enough, and his hair — a wig, I believe — looks unnatural. Rather than Guevara’s familiar beret, he wears a cap that looks like he borrowed it from Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof.) Sherman carries off the role of Juan Perón convincingly, a stiff military man who is entranced by Eva and easily persuaded to follow her political instincts.
I wish the musical accompaniment held up to the singing and choral work, but the four musicians — keyboard, guitar, bass and percussion — sounded thin and lacked the texture that this potentially emotional score requires. Eric Baumgartner and his musicians valiantly attack each number and play with good pace and tempo, but their forces are simply too small.
Credit Covedale with big ambitions. Productions like Evita will lead to more serious work that I hope will address many of these challenges in the future.
EVITA, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, continues through Oct. 17. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.