CAMBRIDGE — “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” my eye.
“Evita” has always wanted you to cry for Eva Perón, has always tried to jerk those tears out of you by bookending its story with her early death.
But this Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has often felt divided against itself: half grudging admiration, half undiluted scorn, highlighting Eva’s pop-star glamour, charisma, and common touch while also painting a portrait of her as an avaricious, power-hungry opportunist.
The American Repertory Theater’s new production of “Evita” seeks less to valorize or vilify than to understand the complex woman at its heart. Directed by Sammi Cannold and driven by Shereen Pimentel’s electrifying performance in the title role, it’s a revival that is also, to a certain extent, a reconsideration, registering as a new generation’s take on “Evita.”
Pimentel is only 25, and Cannold is 29. (When she directed the world premiere of Celine Song’s “Endlings” in 2019, Cannold was the youngest female director in the ART’s history.) The next stop for “Evita” will be at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., as part of its upcoming season. It remains to be seen whether this “Evita” follows the path of many other ART productions and lands on Broadway. (The two Broadway productions of “Evita” so far were directed by men — Harold Prince in 1979 and Michael Grandage in 2012 — as was the hyperkinetic 1996 film adaptation, starring Madonna and directed by Alan Parker.)
Cannold foregrounds the virulent sexism Eva had to combat as she rose from poverty in rural Argentina to become the nation’s first lady. In subtle ways, the director’s staging upends the sleeping-her-way-to-the-top clichés and asks us to consider who was exploiting whom, particularly in one scene where multiple men are grabbing at Eva. Her first lover is the tango singer Magaldi (Gabriel Burrafato), when Eva is only 15 years old.
This “Evita” does not downplay Eva’s failings or the role her popularity played in sustaining the brutal dictatorship of her husband, Argentine president Juan Perón (a solid Caesar Samayoa, who has decent but not overwhelming chemistry with Pimentel). Nor does the production scant Eva’s ruthless streak. Displacing Perón’s very young mistress (Naomi Serrano), Eva briskly informs her: “I’ve just unemployed you.” That paves the way for the forlorn “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” a melancholy beauty of a song that Serrano captures nicely.
Serving as narrator, guide, and sardonic voice of dissent from start to finish is Che, an Everyman-meets-Greek-chorus figure portrayed by Omar Lopez-Cepero. The actor glides from scene to scene without showiness or bombast, which adds punch to Che’s pitiless view of Eva, such as this verdict on her time in the spotlight: “She didn’t say much but she said it loud.”
Director Cannold clearly thinks it added up to more than that. She takes pains to show Eva interacting with the poor, in one upstage scene choosing to let us see their grateful faces while Eva’s back is to the audience.
Pimentel, who starred as Maria in Ivo van Hove’s 2020 Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” seizes the role of Eva with impressive confidence and brio, projecting the requisite magnetism and demonstrating the vocal chops needed to handle the more difficult passages of Lloyd Webber’s score. When she raised her arms in the famous V formation on Tuesday night, the audience at the Loeb Drama Center burst into applause.
“Evita” is far from my favorite musical, but Lloyd Webber’s score has grown on me over the years, with its mixture of rock, Latin music, jazz, folk, and ballad in songs such as “A New Argentina,” “Buenos Aires,” “Rainbow High,” “High Flying, Adored,” and “And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out).”
Where “Evita” gets in trouble has to do with words and story. It’s dramaturgically unwieldy, too often inclined to tell when it should show. Because it’s a nearly sung-through musical, Rice’s lyrics have to carry a heavy expository load, and the strain shows; the oddities of his stilted lyrics sometimes jar the ear.
Consider this clunker from “Rainbow High”: “I’m their product, it’s vital you sell me/So Machiavell me.” Or, from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”: “I kept my promise/Don’t keep your distance,” and “You won’t believe me, all you will see is a girl you once knew/Although she’s dressed up to the nines/At sixes and sevens with you.”
The choreography by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff ranges from graceful waltzes and tangos to movements of martial precision by the military officers who so despise Eva. Scenic designer Jason Sherwood has done exceptional work, from the massed, terraced flowers to the illuminated doorways to the striking visual that begins the show: Eva’s white ball gown hanging, suspended in midair, at center stage.
That gown is a spectral sight. What makes the ART’s “Evita” largely work is how fully Pimentel inhabits the flesh-and-blood woman who wears that gown.
Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Choreographed by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff. Presented by American Repertory Theater in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through July 30. Tickets start at $30. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org