Eva Peron, the charismatic first lady of Argentina, died more than half a century ago, but her story continues to intrigue.
How - and why - did a woman born out of wedlock rise from poverty in a small town to become one of the most powerful women in her country, if not all of South America?
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber supply their own set of answers in the musical Evita, a national tour of which comes this week to the Stranahan Theater as the finale of Theater League's 2007-08 season.
According to the Web site of the Eva Peron Historical Research Foundation, much of the award-winning musical is accurate, some is literary license, and some is complete fabrication. (It must be noted that the foundation, created by Peron's sisters, has its own set of biases.)
What can't be argued is the enduring popularity of the musical, which opened in London in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979 where it ran for almost four years and won seven Tony Awards, including best musical.
The main character of the musical is Eva Peron, of course, but equally important are Juan Peron, Eva's husband, and Che, who appears at important points of Eva's life.
Atlanta native Omar Lopez-Cepero will portray Che in the Stranahan show, and he says it's a bonus to play a role that has no strict definition.
In a telephone interview, he called it an ideal situation for an actor, because you can come up with your own interpretation and no one's going to tell you whether it's right or wrong.
Although the character doesn't explicitly say so, Webber and Rice based Che on Che Guevara, Lopez said, and he used information on the Argentine revolutionary to form one aspect of the multifaceted role. Other aspects are narrator, interpreter of what's happening, and devil's advocate. Sometimes he is simply a device to place Eva in a situation where she is confronted with personal criticism, something she tends to ignore.
"I think it's one of the unique characters in the music theater repertoire; [there are] so many dynamic levels to his personality throughout the show," Lopez said.
Evita opens with the death in 1952 of the first lady, who succumbed to uterine cancer at the age of 33. People line up to view her body; hysterical mourning is the norm.
Except for Che, whose cynical song "Oh What a Circus" smacks the audience right in the face.
It opens with: "Oh what a circus! Oh what a show! /Argentina has gone to town/Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron/We've all gone crazy/Mourning all day and mourning all night/Falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right."
"I think it catches a lot of people by surprise, those in the audience who don't really know Evita, who don't necessarily know what they're in for," Lopez said.
"When I come shooting out of that cannon, they're kind of taken aback a little bit, but it sets up what to expect for the rest of the show."
From the death, and Che's obvious anger, Evita shifts to the beginning, when at the age of 15, Maria Eva Duarte cons Magaldi, a popular but smarmy singer, into taking her to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.
"There's a lot more sarcasm, a lot more playfulness at the beginning, and it grows into a little bit more heated anger toward the end of the show," Lopez said.
"The scenes are all very different and they have their own essence, but I try to find a lot of the comical moments to balance out those angry moments."
Portraying the title character is Malia Tippitts, whom Lopez called fantastic. She was originally one of the understudies for the role, he said, and moved into it full-time when the original actress, Cameron Leigh Wade, had to leave for personal reasons.
"She was a little green at the beginning of the tour, but she's really blossomed," he said. "She's really got a lot to bring to the role. I think you guys will love her."
Although it's 30 years old, Evita continues to pull in audiences, which holds no surprise for Lopez, who called it an "American dream" type of story.
"Think of it, a girl coming from nothing and rising to power and being so adored and loved by the people," he said.
Then you balance that against the side of her behavior that her fans chose to ignore.
"She had just this aura around her. She was giving back to the people and she did love the people but she bankrupted the country. [Her supporters] were blind to what she was really doing."
Even audiences members who don't know the show have more than likely heard some of the songs from it, including "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," "On This Night of a Thousand Stars," "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," "The Money Kept Rolling In," and "High Flying Adored."
Lopez majored in classical voice with the intention of going into opera. He graduated in 2004 from the University of Miami, and it didn't take him long to figure out that opera held little allure.
"I kind of went totally in the opposite direction and sang popular music on a cruise ship and did some revues of singing at theaters around the country as a headline vocalist," he said. He also performed at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., as a headliner in tributes to Johnny Mercer and the Gershwins.
All this experience, from opera to Mercer to pop music has been perfect training for Evita, he said.
"Although it's a pop rock musical, you really need to have some strong technique to do this show. Eight shows a week, that's a lot of singing, and it challenges your range and can be incredibly fatiguing. So I really think my training in college to be an operatic singer, to have that support and that technique, and then a little bit of that rock-pop edge from the other types of singing that I've done, it all comes in handy in this show."
Lopez said he enjoys singing in intimate settings and hopes to go back to it some days, but right now musicals are where he wants to be.
It's so much fun to really dive into a character, he said. "I think that's every actor's dream, to find characters, especially like the one I'm playing right now, and to develop them and make them your own."
"Evita" opens at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Other performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. April 27. Tickets range from $23 to $50 at the Stranahan box office and ticketmaster.com, where additional fees may apply. Information: 419-381-8851.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at email@example.com or 419-724-6130.