Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Shereen Pimentel in “Evita” at the American Repertory Theater. (Photo: Emilio Madrid)

A cross between an iron maiden and a fairy princess gown, the replica of Eva Peron’s famous Dior strapless gown hangs suspended over a neon-framed stage. Like a mummified three-dimensional diorama, the white bejeweled dress takes on a life of its own, its bodice both unsettling and beckoning, warning the audience: Look but do not touch.

This riveting image, with its promise of an evening of highly stylized art and mixed messages, is the perfect introduction to the spectacularly staged “Evita” now at the A.R.T.’s Loeb theater. Its production values – from exquisite costumes, choreography, scenic design and lighting to orchestration and cast talent – can’t be overpraised. The most striking evening of theater to hit Boston stages in a while is, luckily and uncharacteristically, in town for a good, long run (through July 30), so there is plenty of time to snag a ticket and enjoy.

When the scrim lifts and the real show begins, the visuals only get better. A backdrop of silhouetted men and women in gorgeous haute couture hats and heels suddenly breaks into song and dance, like a painting come to life. Cinematic and magical, the effect is thrilling.

Told in vignettes, the storyline is anchored by Eva Duarte Perón and her rise from poverty in rural Argentina to reigning first lady and beloved titular patron saint. Eva’s journey is complicated and full of contradictions. While shamelessly sleeping her way to the top and ruthlessly trampling anyone who gets in her way, she also champions the poor, the disenfranchised and the everyday working class. Voracious in her personal ambition and an original “mean girl,” she also cares deeply for her beloved country and its people.

Critical observer and cynic Che (the standout Omar Lopez-Cepero) narrates this legend, filling in the fairy tale with unflattering morsels of on-the-ground reporting. In his opposing version, Eva’s deceitfulness and egomaniacal greed overshadow her legacy of charisma and beneficence.

Shereen Pimental soars as the larger-than-life Eva, transfixing the audience with her vocal range and regal presence. She commands attention every moment she is on stage, whether as a naïve 15-year-old in search of an acting breakthrough or the haughty, bejeweled dictator of fashion bullying all who don’t kowtow to her. We may feel ambivalent about her, but we can’t take our eyes off her either.

Under Sammi Cannold’s savvy direction, Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff’s sassy, authentic tango choreography and the exceptional performances by Pimentel and Lopez-Cepero, it’s almost possible to overlook the major drawback of the evening – namely, the play itself, which is more disjointed abstraction than linear storytelling. Spawned from a 1976 concept album by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, the musical is short on character development and plot and long on untuneful, long-winded operatic numbers (many overamplified and difficult to decipher). Other than “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” the songs blend, leaving behind no choral snippets that loop in one’s memory banks after the show’s end. Yet “Evita” is not meant to be about traditional dramaturgy. Like its namesake, it is about splash and sparkle and smoke and mirrors, and from the moment the audience lays eyes on the suspended disembodied gown until the orchestra sounds its final note, A.R.T.’s production is an unapologetic feast for all the senses. Highly recommended for anyone looking for an evening of pure epic entertainment.

  • “Evita,” lyrics by Tim Rice, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Presented by American Repertory Theater in Association with Shakespeare Theatre Company, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square. Through July 30.

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