Theater review: Serenbe’s ‘Evita’ brings Buenos Aires to Atlanta

By now you have probably heard that the Southside community of Serenbe has a terrific theater company.

If you are passionate about the craft, you’ll want to investigate what Serenbe Playhouse founder-director Brian Clowdus is doing to jump-start his art form, which, depending on whom you talk to, may be an endangered species.

Clowdus is irrepressible. He’s ambitious. He’ll go far. In six years, he’s built a vibrant organization that produces thoughtful, inventive, high-caliber work. He does this outdoors, in the heat of summer, when the nights are long and the bugs hungry.

Last season, when Curly made his entrance in “Oklahoma!” Clowdus put him on a horse. Earlier this summer, he situated Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” in an old metal shipping container, dressed it up in luxurious contemporary digs, even required his poignant Blanche DuBois (Deb Bowman) to dip into a steamy bathtub. Fabulous!

Now comes “Evita,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical about the Argentine actress who used the high drama of political theater to craft the persona of a queen. Here, when jilted tango singer Magaldi sings “On This Night of a Thousand Stars,” you can’t help but swoon to think that somehow Buenos Aires has been magically transported to Atlanta.

Even though Clowdus’ in-the-round account of “Evita” is a tad uneven, there’s no denying that it’s a visually opulent, thoughtfully detailed effort.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t have a great “Evita” without a regal star appearing on a palatial balcony in a shimmering white gown and blonde chignon.

By that measure, leading lady Randi Garza delivers a stellar performance. She’s a powerhouse singer and a smart actress who is well-nigh perfect as the fetishized bedroom fantasy-turned-saint.

Set designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay deserve high marks for making a splashy architectural statement via their ornate period balcony and look-at-me runway. Costumers Erik Teague and Abby Parker contribute elegant attire for these Argentines high and low.

But somewhere along the way, ironies get lost in the bright light of spectacle.

Not every one of Rice’s delicious lyrics lands. And choreographer Bubba Carr’s work is by turns mesmerizing — and trite. After a rather maudlin opening sequence in which all of Argentina seems to freeze in its steps at the news of Evita’s death, the energy level picks up when the mourning veils and wails give way to goosestep and tango. (See “Buenos Aires” and “Perón’s Latest Flame.”)

As Ché, the narrator who spends the night denouncing Evita as cunning, Charlie Brady is solid yet somehow lacking. Finding the balance in Ché is tricky; it’s easy to be too snarky. Brady’s interesting to watch, and his performance feels natural and unlabored, but it could use a little more charisma and attitude.

As Juan Perón, opera singer César Augusto is a diminutive, Napoleonic general. His voice is beautiful, his acting nuanced, but his heavy Spanish accent is a stumbling block. There are moments when you can’t understand him, and that’s an issue for a piece written in English.

In small but important roles, Chase Peacock and Ally Duncan are strong as Magaldi and Perón’s mistress, respectively. The apprentice company — David-Aaron Roth, Terrence Smith, Cherise James, Shelby Folks and Shannon McCarren, who also appear in “The Secret Garden” through Aug. 16 — add pep and sparkle to the ensemble.

The most recent Broadway revival of “Evita,” which happened to tour Atlanta last year, set a very high bar. For better or worse, Serenbe Playhouse chose to follow up while the memory of that sterling production lingers. That sort of speaks to the grandness of its ambition, don’t you think?

Like Eva Perón herself, this theater lives in the countryside, but it has big-city vision. This telling of “Evita” may not shatter every note, but it sure looks good trying.

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