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Olney Theatre Center offers its view of Eva Perón.

Rachel Zampelli (center) and the cast of Evita, directed by Will Davis, at the Olney Theatre Center.
(© Stan Barouh)

Evita is a musical that can fill large spaces, as it did in 1979 in the enormous Broadway Theatre, where the show began its American life. But as the Olney Theatre Center is proving these days, Evita can also hold its own in a much smaller space, including the theater's 420-seat mainstage.

Using Andrew Lloyd Webber's opulent music and Tim Rice's canny lyrics as the blueprint, music director and orchestrator Christopher Youstra intelligently holds this Evita together as its five principals spin out a tale that begins in Argentina in 1934 and ends in 1952. The story swirls through the life of Eva Perón, a young girl who grew up with nothing, became a starlet at age 22 and first lady of Argentina at 27, and died at the age of 33, leaving behind an unparalleled social and political legacy.

If Lloyd Webber and Rice had simply written a biography of the remarkable Eva Perón, it would probably have been forgotten by now, but they saw fit to add a character who could analyze and criticize Eva, too: Che Guevara. Everywhere Eva goes, Che goes, reminding her of her roots, her background, and her stunning and ruthless rise to power. In this production, Che is performed by the extremely talented Robert Ariza, who has a powerful, gentle tenor voice and easily commands the stage, whether he is singing with Evita or leading the whole ensemble. His "High Flying Adored" is particularly noteworthy.

Eva, as played by Rachel Zampelli, has plenty of the "star quality" Evita is supposed to have, though at times Zampelli's voice overpowers some of her fellow cast members. Vocally, she is most effective in the softer songs like "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You" and "You Must Love Me."

Juan Perón, as performed by Nick Duckart, is convincing as the dictator of Argentina, whose wife took the world by storm and whose people adored her for what they believed was her kindness.

Jonathan Atkinson plays Magaldi, a former lover of Eva's and the nightclub singer who leaves a small town to succeed in Buenos Aires. Atkinson milks the role for every available bit of humor, stringing out each syllable in the first line of "On This Night of a Thousand Stars." Jamie Eacker beautifully performs the role of Perón's young mistress, whom Eva skillfully forces out, and who sings a haunting rendition of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall."

There are only 10 members of the ensemble, although choreographer Christopher d'Amboise cleverly uses a variety of dances — tangos, paso dobles, even a flamenco routine — to make the ensemble seem bigger than it is, filling the stage at almost every moment. Director Will Davis also uses the ensemble wisely, keeping them hidden behind six arched, glass double doors as observers until they are needed as a chorus. Davis' interpretation of Evita is less successful, however. He makes her into a super-heroine, never revealing her human side.

Everything in Evita happens within the single set, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado. Its tall walls become the backdrop for everything from where Evita meets her first lover to where she meets Perón, and later where she learns how to greet her admirers. Colin K. Bills' effective lighting design uses shades of red, soft, and hot pink, and raspberry on the walls to color the moods in various scenes of Evita. Youstra and his seven-member orchestra sit stage right, behind a wooden enclosure.

Ivania Stack creates beautiful clothes for Evita including berry-red and gold-and-brown satin strapless dresses in which she sings "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." There are less impressive, but accurate, period clothes for the poor women of Argentina.

Che always has the upper hand in Evita. He is the teller of Evita's tale, the sculptor of her image. Yet because Evita comes across as more of a superhero than a person in this production and Che strikes the audience as a human being who feels for the people, there is no fire in the juxtaposition between these two roles. Evita is an icon, but it's Che who leaves the stage looking and sounding stronger than she could ever be.