Audiences for the Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Evita” can make up their own minds whether Argentine legend Eva Peron used sex as a path to political power, or overcame personal hardships to emerge as a revered champion of the country’s “shirtless ones.”
“Evita” opens Friday, July 26 at the Seacoast Rep. The award-winning musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice depicts the life of the controversial First Lady of Argentina who exemplified an ambitious femininity cut short by an early death that shook her nation.
“Did she sleep her way to power? Was she a populist or authoritarian? What could have been had she not died?” said Jessie Carina Lanza, who plays the lead role in the production.
“She was called a whore by some and revered as a saint by other,” Lanza said. “I think that having those kind of conflicting accounts of her life make her even more interesting as a character.”
Evita began as a rock opera concept album in 1976. The musical debuted in London in 1978, and on Broadway a year later. With a memorable mix of classical, Latin and rock songs led by “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” Evita swept the Tony awards and became a major cultural event. A 1996 movie version starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas won three Golden Globe awards.
“Evita” charts Eva Peron’s blazing course through Argentine culture and politics in the mid-20th century. Arriving from the provinces in Buenos Aires with dreams of becoming an actress, she teams up with ambitious colonel, Juan Person, who captures the presidency in 1946.
The two pursue a populist agenda combining both fascist and socialist tendencies that became known as “Peronism.” As the musical depicts, Evita uses her glamor to promote the movement with an appeal to the country’s struggling low-income classes, known as descamisados, or “shirtless ones.” She also seeks to charm Europe on a transatlantic visit.
As first lady, Evita has further ambitions, to run for vice president, but she is thwarted by opposition in the powerful military and her own failing health. When she dies at age 33 as the official “spiritual leader of the nation,” Argentina goes into mourning. Her memory remains prominent to this day.
“She can be everything people have ever said about her or be nothing that anyone thought. We don’t really know because she died so young,” Lanza said.
The story has contemporary relevance at a time when populist political movements are surging and the political and sexual roles of women are being debated in new ways.
“The story itself goes a lot deeper into what are women allowed to have; what are women’s bodies allowed to be?” Lanza said. “In this time (of the play), most women in Argentina and in the world didn’t have much power or control over anything. Eva chose to use her body in certain ways to get what she wanted, and then twisted things around in order to get more power.”
“It’s often easy for people to take away from the story that Eva just slept her way to the top, and I think there’s a lot more to it than that,” she said.
Lexi Meunier, who has directed “The Glass Menagerie,” “Into The Woods,” and “Little Women” at the Seacoast Rep will direct “Evita,” with a set design by The Mad Men of Oopsie Daisy Inc. The Mad Men duo of Ben Hart and Brandon James were recently named as co-artistic directors of the Rep.
Evita is the Seacoast Rep’s second consecutive production – after “West Side Story” – involving Hispanic themes and cast members. That is a challenge at a time when theaters are under pressure to cast actors reflecting the ethnicity of the characters, and in a Seacoast region with a relatively tiny Hispanic population.
Lanza, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, grew up in Idaho and relocated after college to Brooklyn. She prepared her audition material for “West Side Story” but was then encouraged to try “Evita.”
“I admire the Seacoast Rep for creating great conscious casting of this show,” she said. “We have a largely Latinx cast, which I think is important in the grander scheme of representation on the stage as a whole and also important personally to myself and many of my castmates.”
“Walking into the auditions for this felt special, being able to see a room really full of Latinx. Actors. It’s still not always the norm to see specific ethnicities and cultures being represented on stage properly,” she said.
Evita runs July 26 to August 24. There is a preview night on July 25. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available through the Seacoast Rep box office at (603) 433-4472, or online at www.seacoastrep.org/tickets. For student discounts, call the box office. The Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s 2019 season is sponsored in part by Bondgarden Farms, Martingale Wharf, MacEdge, the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel and Key Heating and Air Conditioning.