“Evita” Keeps Political Season on Stage at Bay Street

Carolina Santos Read and Jose Ozuna rehearse for "Evita," opening this week at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Barry Gordin photos

In its first two productions of the summer mainstage season, the Bay Street Theater has tackled the topic of politics with plays exploring the 1950s-blacklisting era as well as the Nixon Watergate scandal.

The political focus continues with the third and final show of Bay Street’s season — “Evita,” the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics and book by Tim Rice. The play, which will be directed by Bay Street’s associate artistic director Will Pomerantz and choreographed by Marcos Santana, tells the story of Eva and Juan Perón, two larger than life figures who together, in the 1940s and 1950s, reshaped the Argentinian political landscape often for better and sometimes for worse.

The play is famous for musical numbers like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” “High Flying, Adored” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” and Mr. Pomerantz is excited to bring it to the Bay Street stage.

“This show, to me, is a bit of an outlier,” said Mr. Pomerantz in a recent phone interview. “Stylistically, it has its own sound and feeling distinct from all other shows. It’s a sung-through piece of work, with just two speeches, but after while you don’t realize it’s sung through … I think it’s a masterpiece. It has a wonderful score and functions in a different way.”

That’s because “Evita” doesn’t rely on the traditional mode of most musicals which start with a scene and a song, followed by transition music and segue into a new scene.

“It doesn’t happen that way in this show. One thing flows into another, it’s a wonderful challenge for us to figure out,” he said. “It’s also a big show. We have a really talented group of performers — it’s a completely diverse cast and all of the leads are Latino, which still isn’t the norm.”

“It’s also set in a tango bar, so I like the approach,” he added. “I’m also excited about the design and the space.”

To understand “Evita” the musical (and the tango bar setting), it’s important to understand the story of the Peróns themselves and their effect on the nation. Though he was president, it was Eva (or Evita as she was endearingly known) who dominated the political scene as first lady of Argentina. Born into poverty, she was driven to succeed and pursued an acting career before meeting, marrying and joining forces with Juan Perón to rule Argentina when he was elected president in 1946.

Eva’s involvement in the Argentinian government came at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote and as she climbed the ladder of power she became involved in many political and charitable causes, including advocacy for labor rights and institution of social programs for the underclass, who adored her. She assumed power over the Ministries of Health and Labor, founded the Female Perónist Party and was instrumental in securing the women’s right to vote in Argentina in 1947.

But like all complicated figures, her reforms didn’t come without a downside. While popular among the working class, both she and Juan were seen as demagogue-driven dictators by their political opponents who worried about the couple’s often strong-armed tactics and consolidation on power, especially when, in 1951, Eva contemplated a run for vice-president.

But that never happened — Evita was battling cervical cancer at the time and died in 1952 at the age of 33. Three years later, Juan Perón was overthrown in a coup and went into exile for 16 years. From 1956 through the early 1970s, Perónism was outlawed in Argentina and images of the former president and even mention of the names of he and Eva was prohibited.

“Originally, when [Bay Street’s artistic director] Scott Schwartz and I were discussing this play, I knew instinctively we were going to have to adapt this epic to the scale of our theater,” said Pomerantz. “I had this hunch it would be interesting if we had it take place in a tango bar.

“It’s a natural choice.”

The cast of “Evita” at Bay Street Theater.

He explains the concept revolves around the idea that the people in the bar are devoted Perónists during the time of Juan’s exile, so by law are not permitted to speak of the couple’s years in office. But the Peróns are legendary and they choose to retell their tale in secret.

“It’s keeping the events of the Peróns alive, a kind of ritual they do after hours, and these guys do it on the anniversary of Eva’s death,” explained Pomerantz. “The story means a great deal to these people and we tell it in a simple and theatrical way.

“It’s an experiment and hasn’t been done before, but I think it will work,” he added. “I’m excited to see how audiences react to it.”

Because the action takes place in a tango bar, Pomerantz notes that the Bay Street production will have even more dancing than was in the original version of “Evita.”

“It’s more of a dance show than we have ever done since Scott and I’ve been at Bay Street,” he said. “Marcos Santana is a fantastic choreographer … and tango is an important motif — for me, it’s a metaphor for the relationship between Perón and Eva.”

“We’ll also have a tango band — they’re in the bar too, on stage,” he added.

In order to prepare lead actors Arianna Rosario (Eva) and Omar Lopez-Cepero (Perón) for the dance numbers, Pomerantz explained that a representative from the Argentine consulate was brought in to work with the actors on their tango skills. But one thing that didn’t have to be learned was the chemistry between Rosario and Lopez-Cepero. In real life, the two actors are engaged and will be getting married this fall.

“It was a lengthy auditioning process and we were aware they were together. It just sort of happened we liked both of them and asked them to do it,” said Pomerantz. “It was fortunate timing. They were both available and interested in doing it.

“It speeds up the process to some degree. The tango is an intimate dance and it helps that we won’t have to build that chemistry — it’s there.”

Because this is the season of politics at Bay Street, when asked to expound on the themes of “Evita” and if, in the story of Eva and Juan Perón he sees a parallel in today’s political scene, Pomerantz responded: “The question of the potential dangers of the populist charismatic leader — whether they rule from the left like the Peróns or from the right — applies, and when people start to be ruled by devotions to personality that’s a dangerous thing.”

“Do we try to make anything specific in this show? No,” he added. “I leave it to the audience to make whatever conclusions that come to them.”

 “Evita” will run from July 31 to August 26 at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. A “Pay What You Can” performance will be offered on Tuesday, July 31 at 7 p.m. Previews are July 31 to August 3. “Talkback Tuesdays” with members of the cast are on August 7, 14, and 21, immediately following the performances. After the evening performances on Saturdays and Sundays August 11, 12, 18, 19, 25, and 26, guests are invited to stay for a sing-a-long in which guests can sing songs from the show together with piano accompaniment in the theater lobby. On Sunday, August 19, members of the LGBTQ audience are invited to the 2 p.m. performance with special after party to follow.

In addition to regularly priced tickets, there are $30 and $20 tickets available for individuals under 30 and 20 years old, respectively. Bay Street also offers free student tickets for all Sunday matinees (student ID required). To purchase tickets call the box office at (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.