Faithful local community theatergoers know the work of actors Steve and Dianne Dawson well; the couple, married in real life, has performed together many times in some memorable productions. Their current collaboration, with director-choreographer Rick Kerby, takes place on the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre stage and brings back to life the controversial historical figure of Eva Peron, in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice hit, Evita.
Dianne Dawson as Evita.
I’ve seen Evita many times over the past 30 years, and while one appreciates the cleverness of the musical numbers and the staging, as well as the sheer force of the characters portrayed, the show also has its fair share of awkwardness and absences in telling the story of the charismatic but doomed first lady of Argentina. No production can really skate over those flaws, but the Manatee Players’ version manages to rise to some occasionally exciting heights, thanks to its strong lead performances and Kerby’s skill in moving along the action.
Steve Dawson is Che, the cynical commentator on Evita’s climb to fame, who may be thought of as an anonymous peasant/revolutionary or as the Argentine-born Che Guevara, who was a few years younger than Eva Peron but would have been able to observe her career as a young man. Che comes onto the stage just after the announcement of Eva’s death, which throws the country into mourning for their beloved Santa Evita. But was she really a figure of philanthropy for her descamisados (shirtless ones), or just a calculating woman determined to achieve fortune and status?
Certainly Dianne Dawson makes quite clear Eva’s determination, from the moment she latches onto tango singer Agustin Magaldi (Omar Montes, suitably suave yet cheap) as her ticket out of the sticks to the big city of Buenos Aires. Dawson, slight of frame as Eva herself was, nevertheless demonstrates a forceful stage presence; you can feel her ambition burning inside her like a fever as she makes her moves up the ladder, eventually connecting with military leader Juan Peron (Bradley Barbaro, who manages to sing with both might and delicacy on his numbers). With Peron, Eva has found her way to real power. It remains for Che to keep following her progress with sarcastic asides.
In addition to the talented leads here, Kerby has found an effective performer for the brief but potent role of Peron’s Mistress (Melanie Bierweiler) and has deployed well his mostly on-the-mark ensemble players, on a simple, workable two-level set (we must have that balcony for the famous Don’t Cry for Me Argentina scene). You can’t help but feel some thrills during the Act I closer, A New Argentina, and Act II’s And the Money Kept Rolling In is also especially rousing. Kudos to musical director Aaron Cassette and his orchestra here, as well as lighting designer Joseph P. Oshry.
Evita continues through Oct. 7. For tickets, call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.