In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for youngsters, from 12 to 18 years, to be the leading ladies of theater companies. In the early 20th century, such stars as Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish began their careers as teenagers.
So it shouldn't be such a surprise for audiences to cheer the performance of Anneliese van der Pol as Eva Peron in the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Evita," a Theatre Under the Stars production at Buena Park Civic Theatre.
She is wonderful, with a bright, brash show voice, a sure command of Evita's monstrous ego and her tragic crumbling at the end. Van der Pol is 15. She knows the sly, lustful young Eva as well as she knows her character's tortured final days. It is a stirring and impressive performance.
Van der Pol is not the only strength of this visually attractive and musically powerful staging. There is Chris Coyne's boyish, very tongue-in-cheek Che Guevara, which has some subtleties a lot of Ches have not found. Coyne's Che sees Eva Peron honestly and without condescension, and with a real sense of pity for her falseness. Coyne also has an infectious high baritone voice that is just right for Che's attitudes and platitudes.
As Juan Peron, Frederick Crisafulli's rich somber tones are a little heavy sometimes, but his solid vocal work couldn't otherwise be more right for Peron. Geryl Anderson's Agustin Magaldi, the tacky "tango singer" lover of Eva's early years, is a delightfully campy send-up, and Ana Maria Gedney's restrained but effectively vulnerable "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," as Peron's displaced mistress, is touching.
Director Kevin Calvin has used the Patio Theatre's wide stage most effectively, keeping things visually interesting and theatrically valid. The usually muscular choreography by Scott Simmons fits perfectly into the Argentine passion for strength and power, and Bob Marino's conducting couldn't be better. Marino's hand keeps an insistent suspense going even with Lloyd Webber's derivative score, informed well by Jim Hormel's musical direction.
As costume designer, Robin Whitney has captured the look of the period and has chosen fabrics that play beautifully, whether the actors are simply walking or dancing.
This is a little gem of a revival, well conceived throughout, but especially notable for its tone, style and Coyne's impish Che. But most of all, it's to be remembered for the performance of Anneliese van der Pol, a young talent you'll definitely be hearing from in the future.
"Evita," Theatre Under the Stars Patio Stage, 8150 Knott Ave., Buena Park. Thursday-Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Ends Sat. $12. (714) 562-3844. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.