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'Evita' shines at The Rep

click to enlarge 'EVITA': Maria Eberline plays Eva Peron and David Villella plays Che in The Rep's production opening Sept. 10.
  • 'EVITA': Maria Eberline plays Eva Peron and David Villella plays Che in The Rep's production opening Sept. 10.
"The role is a beast. It's a vocal marathon," says Maria Eberline, the striking, raven-haired actress from San Diego who is taking on the role of Eva Peron in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of "Evita." Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's mostly sung-through story of Peron's rise to a position of power and influence in Argentina in the 1940s opens The Rep's 2010-11 season Friday, Sept. 10.

"It's not just that this role is sung but it's sung in the rafters," says Eberline of her part. "She belts E and E flats, notes that only dogs can hear, you know?"

Everything about "Evita" is large-scale, including the cast, which is busting at the seams with 19 adults, nine children and an orchestra with nine members. That isn't unusual for the shows of Lloyd Webber and Rice, who made their mark with the grand spectacles of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The Rep wouldn't have taken on the complex and expensive "Evita" unless it had a good idea that the musical, which is now more than 30 years old (it debuted in London's West End in 1978), would draw in audiences. Indeed, the 2010 "Evita" marks the second time the show has found its way to The Rep and both times it has had the same director — company founder Cliff Baker.

"Every young girl who has nothing would dream of being a star and that is exactly what she made of herself," says Baker about Peron and about the ongoing popularity of "Evita."

Baker, now the director for Wildwood Park for the Arts, says his idea of Eva changed during the auditions.

"I went in looking for an actress who can sing Eva because it's so demanding," says Baker. "I saw 25 women who had done Eva — at least 25 women. But [Eberline] walks in the room and nails the audition piece. It was a twist, it wasn't what I was expecting. And I was nervous because all I get with each woman is 25 minutes."

The twist that Baker is referring to is that Eberline had not played the role before (though she was an understudy for the part for a short time on a European tour) and that she has Latin heritage.

For the film version of "Evita," the much-coveted Eva role went to not-even-close-to-Argentinian Madonna — much to the dismay of critics and music lovers everywhere.  

"I celebrate her [Eberline's] ethnicity," says Baker. "What would be more compelling for an audience than to see a Latin woman playing Eva? Even though Eva has bleached her hair and is wearing Dior, she still has Latin blood. It can't be denied and keeps her in touch with the people, the people who brought her to power."

Baker, who says he honestly doesn't remember much about how he staged "Evita" the first time at the Rep, is clearly a fan of the show. He can single out another part of Rice and Lloyd Webber's musical that he feels gives it enduring appeal.

"It's so non-traditional," Baker notes. "It's structured in way that if the audience doesn't know the show, there is no way that they know what the next scene is going to be. And so it is exciting that way."

Evita

Arkansas Repertory Theatre

Sept. 10-Oct. 3

$20-$50 before Sept. 10, $25-$60 after 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

378-0405, therep.org

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