'Evita' on the Israeli Stage Delivers as a Spectacle, but Something Is Missing

Our critic was left to wonder if there was any message to be drawn from the Habima National Theater’s presentation of a play about a country whose flag is blue and white and in which the wife of the leader has a very big influence on politics.

Michael Handelzalts
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Shiri Maimon (center) in a scene from 'Evita.'
Shiri Maimon (center) in a scene from 'Evita.' Credit: Daniel Kaminski
Michael Handelzalts

Some showbiz successes are hard to explain, like Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Evita.” It premiered in the late 1970s, after the hit song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” which was included on the album that preceded the show, had already topped the charts. The play has a heroine – a girl from a small town who comes to the big city of Buenos Aires, sleeps her way to the top, marries the ruler, is adored by the masses and derided by the elites, gains saintly status and dies young. But it doesn’t really contain any conflict. A narrator, ostensibly representing the revolutionary Che Guevara, does convey criticism of her behavior, but this comes in the form of one-sided declarations. The musical material, aside from the one major hit, is rather shallow. It does provide ample opportunity for energetic dancing by a large cast, but that’s about it. Nonetheless, “Evita” is still very successful all over the world, and this Habima production, directed by Moshe Kaftan, isn’t about to tarnish the play’s reputation.

As far as “bread and circuses” go, ticket-buyers (and I saw the play at a special gala performance, where the prices were even steeper) will get full value for their money. Thirty-five energetic dancers and singers; a set that features a building façade with a balcony that moves forward with Evita and her husband on it; lots of neon signs and spectacular lighting; smoke that fills the stage. The show offers two hours of action accompanied by a live orchestra featuring plenty of gut-shaking bass lines (in general, very little of the music is played softly; it ranges from loud to louder).

And then there is the stellar cast: Rafi Weinstock, a rare pleasure to see and hear in the episodic role of singer Augustin Magaldi; Aki Avni as Colonel Juan Peron, with a voice that strains a bit on the high notes; Ran Dankner as Che Guevara (It’s rather ironic that this wild and mysterious character becomes the narrator); and the star of the show, Shiri Maimon, a
talent show discovery befitting the character of Evita, with the right voice and an almost-touching vulnerability.

Don’t get me wrong: Everything in this play is just as it should be. All the ingredients are there, and the time passes pleasantly. Except for one thing: I read the captions below the various pictures in the program, and I admit that many of those words were heard from the stage, too. But any intricate drama or political points, if they were to be found at all, remained in the program. What was up on stage was pure entertainment: dancing, singing, lighting, costumes, movement, but with no drama and especially no politics, which even in the program was quite schematic.

In their absence, I was left to wonder if there was any message to be drawn from the Habima National Theater’s presentation of a play about a country whose flag is blue and white, in which the wife of the leader, though unelected, has a very big influence on politics via the charm she exerts on her husband and the adoration she reaps – rightly or wrongly – from the “rabble” (I’m quoting from the text here).  Or maybe I was just getting carried away. Don’t cry for me, Habima.

Habima Theater presents “Evita” by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Translation: Daniel Efrat. Director: Moshe Kaftan. Choreography: Avichai Hacham. Musical director: Yossi Ben Nun. Set design: Bambi Friedman. Costumes: Yelena Kelrich. Lighting: Keren Granek.