Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

Evita

San Francisco Playhouse

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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I’m probably the only theater maven who hadn’t seen “Evita” until I recently attended San Francisco Playhouse’s outstanding production of the multiple international award-winning musical. Originally opened in London in 1978 and New York the year after, the sung-through musical “Evita” seems never to have left a stage somewhere in the world since then. And it’s no wonder because the loose biography lyrically explores the dramatic life and brilliant rise of Eva Perón (1919-1952), the “First Lady of Argentina.”

In SF Playhouse’s charming version of “Evita,” starring talented Sophia Alawi in the lead role, we watch Eva Duarte transform herself from a poor 15-year-old to a fearless, ambitious actress, into Evita, the most powerful woman in Latin America as the wife of military leader-turned-president/dictator Juan Perón.


Evita is presented with many flaws — she slept her way to the top, was reckless or worse with the charitable funds she collected, and was so ambitious that she wanted to be Vice President of Argentina. Yet, as acted by Sophia Alawi, it is hard not to empathize with Evita, as did the working class, the shirtless descamisados, who loved her.


Tim Rice’s book and lyrics were, in part, based on a rather negative biography of Eva Perón, which was written by anti-Perónist Argentines. Rice added the narrator Che (excellent Alex Rodriguez), who disapproves of Eva’s character while also providing needed detail and depth.


But without Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hypnotic music, “Evita” would be distinctly two-dimensional. The challenging score includes tangos, paso dobles, other Latin flavors, and musical themes, notably the unforgettable “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” The musical’s atonality worked better at times than others.


Juan Perón, played by Peter Gregus, made the most of his supporting role. Also giving fine performances are Jurä Davis as tango singer Augustin Magaldi and Chanel Tilghman as an early Perón mistress and a young mother. But Sophia Alawi’s Evita is on stage throughout the two-act presentation, and she exemplifies and embodies Evita.


SF Playhouse’s new production greatly benefits from Bill English’s accomplished direction. A talented cast of local actors and a live band made the musical come alive. Theatrical lighting (Michael Oesch) and the use of screen projections (Sarah Phykitt) added to the drama. The many quick, on-stage changes of glamourous period costumes (Abra Berman) were seamless. And Sophia Alawi looked gorgeous in Evita’s famous white strapless ball gown.

We know from the start of Act I that Evita dies from cancer at age 33. But when we see her death at the end of Act II, it is impossible not to feel a bit like the shirtless descamisados, who mourn the death of a dazzling, very human young woman who transformed her country.


“Evita” runs at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, through September 7, 2024. Its length is approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission. Masks are encouraged but optional. Tickets, $30-$125, are available at sfplayhouse.org or through the box office at 415-677-9596.

By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved
emilymendel@gmail.com

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