Set against the backdrop of Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s, this salacious and rather unforgiving look at national hero Eva Perón (lovingly called Evita – meaning little Eva) takes on new significance amidst growing nationalist and fascist impulses in the United States and abroad.

Picking out the shows I would review this year, I knew I had to see Evita at Lyric Arts. For a musical that almost everyone has heard of, very few companies actually attempt this hallmark. It is basically a libretto with massive dancing and ensemble numbers. It hard to do well and easy to do poorly, in particular because the book seems so dated (it is nearly 40 years old at this point) and the character arcs aren’t really the main event. I was impressed that Lyric would attempt it, and given how little it is actually performed by smaller companies. This is an amazing chance to see a show that is rarely performed but remains part of our musical imaginary.  Lyric has done a great job with their orchestration and sound mixing – the music fills their small space, wrapping the audience in the grief and passion of the story.

Evita’s plot is simple enough: a poor but beautiful actress makes her mark on Argentina society through populist appeal and a powerful political marriage. Her rise is decried by the middle and upper classes as well as the military, but her influence over the lower-class’s hearts is undeniable, and with her by his side, her husband Juan enjoys a swift rise to power. That her legacy is not necessarily found in the couple’s corruption and the ushering in of fascism can probably be found in the fact that she died very young at 33.

There is much to recommend Lyric Arts’ version of this classic musical. As Eva, Kiko Laureano starts off a bit hesitant but shines brightly in the second half of the musical. Adan Varela as Ché is humorous and charming, but seems to lack a bit of the rock-opera range for the part. Still, his mockery of the Perons is pitch-perfect, and his duet with Laila Sahir in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” will absolutely bring tears to your eyes. Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan as Juan Perón is charming and just the right amount of politician-slimy. You can feel him pushing against hyper-masculine versions of Juan to show a man a little less sure of himself. Sullivan’s Juan is deeply needful of Eva, and this makes their more tender moments read slightly more true.  The book gives the actors very little to work with, so the fact they are able to craft this much speaks volumes about their acting abilities and Matt McNabb’s direction. My one wish is that the actors had taken better advantage of the set-- choosing to use the catwalk around the edge of the stage instead of the full depth of the stage or the raised balcony area made the set feel overwrought and unnecessary.

Evita judges Eva without attempting to really understand her; it never attempts to give us access to her inner world. Choosing Ché Guevara to tell her story is also a pretty pointed criticism, which lets the viewer know immediately this is not an impartial view. Evita never shows how rough her life was/might have been, going from vague provincial Junín, instead showcasing her many lovers in numbers such as “Good Night and Thank You.” It makes strange choices, such as showing Eva’s motives as purely mercenary towards her future husband in numbers like “I’d be Surprisingly Good for You,” and then expecting us to feel the warmth and mutual love between the couple during “You Must Love Me.” While Eva’s instrumentality in a show ostensibly about her own life could be (charitably) read as a meta-critique (the masses who thought they knew her never did and never could), a more cynical (and I would argue, correct) interpretation is that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t seem to understand Eva or get to the bottom of the reason the people of Argentina loved her. Nowhere in the play is highlighted Eva’s work on women’s suffrage, and her refusal of the vice-presidency isn’t contextualized enough to register with the audience.

The pieces of this musical which are most impactful are when the story, music and choreography come together. This is perhaps best highlighted in the song “The Art of the Possible,” where the political climate, the precarious nature power within the ranks of the military, and Juan’s rise to power are met with a precise version of musical chairs. The swell of nationalist feeling and general unhappiness that sweeps Juan and Eva into power is eerily familiar, and it manages to continue to ring true in our current political climate.

Evita plays at Lyric Arts in Anoka until April 14th. Laureano’s rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” will have you humming all week.