Getting to know the Evitapus: Eight women take on an iconic role at the CCPA

City Circle Theatre Company Presents Evita: In Concert

Coralville Center for the Performing Arts -- Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-16

Michael Benson as Juan Péron, Jessica Wittman as Eva Péron. — Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

There is something incredible that happens when you stir up the norm. City Circle Theatre Company’s concert presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s highly successful Evita will be electrifying the Coralville Center of the Performing Arts this weekend, Feb. 14-16 (tickets are $14-29). Their concept is unlike any Evita I had heard before, with eight capable actresses sharing the leading role of Eva Peron.

I was lucky enough to see their “stumble-through” recently. That’s theater-speak for the first time the whole cast performs the whole show, pieced together from rehearsals. Even without a full orchestra, a few chairs as set and some bare mic stands, the performance brought me chills, tears and goose bumps. I asked the eight Evas a few questions, knowing that Eva Péron was being portrayed by eight women who all related to her in some way. The actresses range in age and life experience, but Eva could unite them all, just as she did for so many in life.

Lauren Rude as Eva Péron. — Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

Beginning the story, young Eva Duarte is played first by Lauren Rude. “I relate to my Eva a ton,” she said. “As a high school senior, I’ve been making a lot of ‘jumps’ recently! Eva leaves home to pursue a career as a performer, which is exactly what I hope to be doing this fall. Over the past few weeks I’ve been auditioning for musical theater and acting programs all over the country, and if it’s taught me anything it’s that regardless of how scary it can seem to suddenly be making decisions about your future, if you’re truly passionate about those decisions it can actually be fun to do the work!”

Sasha Tyler, like Lauren, portrays Eva as a late teenager. She finds Eva’s passion inspiring. “My passion for performing has brought me to this point where I am studying theater in college in preparation to make it my living. My hope is that this passion will take me to New York — my highest aspiration is Broadway. I want to be known and I want to be heard, just like Eva Péron. Eva is a go-getter. She capitalizes on every opportunity available to her. That is what I aspire to be like. Eva Duarte waits for no one, because no one wants you to succeed as badly as you do”.

Jessica Wittman enters the stage as a formidable Eva, marrying Juan Péron and thrusting herself into politics. Wittman muses, “I think Eva always knew she was meant for something better in her life. You will hear the line ‘Screw the middle classes, I will never accept them and they will never deny me anything again…’ She always wanted to be a part of something bigger and better than life, and she used what she had to accomplish that. In my scenes, she is using her charm, wit and feminine wiles to gain status by starting a relationship with Péron. My take away, for the ‘every woman,’ is that we all have vulnerabilities and the will to succeed. Many women push that vulnerability down somewhere deep to try to succeed, whether it be in their home lives, relationships or at work.”

Mia Fryvecind Gimenez as Eva Péron. — Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

As Eva’s life continues she is a beacon of hope for the people of Argentina. As the love the public has for her grows, so does Eva’s position in the community. Mia Fryvecind Gimenez’s Latina roots ground her breath-taking portrayal. “My father is from Cuba,” she said. “He came to the United States to play baseball, and he quit. He got called to service, he’s a minister. Now he is going on 30 years running a homeless shelter — working for the common, underprivileged, under-served man. So that part of Eva Péron’s journey absolutely resonates with me. I do believe at this point in her life, she genuinely does feel for the people. She’s been in the field, has sympathy and has the power to help them. I don’t think it’s gone to her head, yet.” Fryvecind Gimenez uses her incredible gift of music as her ministry.

Kristen DeGrazia shines as she enters the role as Evita. She explains, “I portray Eva Péron as she is setting out on the ‘Rainbow Tour,’ when she embarked on a tour of Europe with the goal of gaining global respect for the new regime. In Argentina as first lady, she is loved by the working class. In Europe she is welcomed in some countries, such as Spain, and snubbed and even jeered in others. With my portrayal of Eva at this point in her life, I am working to portray her strength as she sets out on the European tour, while also showing a bit of her vulnerability as she is rejected in some countries. I think Eva was fueled by the adoration she received from the working class people of Argentina, but put on a hard exterior when facing negative reactions from others.”

Evita’s power attacks like a mother tiger as Sarah Hinzman begins her take on the role. On approaching her portrayal, Hinzman said, “I’ve spent more time than I typically do really analyzing each and every word she uses and what I can do as an actor to deliver the intent of those words. The musical is actually quite critical of her. I have to believe, and I do believe, that she does everything for the right reasons. I’m sure the personal ethos I have developed for my own performance is a tiny fraction of the real woman’s. This is a role I’ve always wanted to play, and I’m glad it’s come along at all — but especially after I’ve had an array of life experiences to draw from. I’m beyond the age she was when she died (but not by much). To become one of the most powerful women in the Americas before the age of 33 simply leaves me in awe.”

As Eva ages, we see her get very ill, but showing only grace, affluence and dignity to the public. Melisa Wallace Rusk’s Eva performance is heartbreaking and visceral. She is able to take her own life history and really use it for the role. Wallace Rusk bravely shares, “I had told [director] Chris Okiishi, back when we had our first rehearsal together, about my own history with cervical cancer. I told him how appropriate it was that I had been cast to sing this song in the show, because I have absolutely been where Eva is at this point in time. My story obviously ends up much more happily, as the hysterectomy performed on me eliminated the cancer in my body — thanks to modern medicine and early detection! However, what I struggled with, and what I think Eva is struggling with, is that loss of the female identity — to lose the very part of your body that, in many minds, defines an AFAB [assigned female at birth] woman: her womb. It feels like losing autonomy over your body and life. So Eva pushes, over-reaches even. She is over-compensating, as a woman in a man’s world already feels she has to, for that loss of her identity.”

As the last Eva is brought onto stage, Rebecca Fields-Moffitt fills the role with palpable anguish and grace. Fields-Moffitt explains some of her choices: “I think Eva had an unfortunately common experience for women of her time. Important life decisions were handled by her husband and she was allowed no voice where it really mattered: her own health and choices about it. For me, part of my motivation is the sadness of that — how it must feel to be suddenly at death’s door, accounting and atoning for your life, knowing that those around you were keeping you in the dark and using you for their own gain. Eva was so young. She died at 30 or 33 depending on the source. She did all this in her teens and twenties and was as rash and impulsive and short-sighted as modern young people. But add fame and power and she was viewed as dangerous to some and saintly to others. She burned so brightly that she burned out.”

These Evitas portray Eva Duarte Péron so seamlessly, you will find yourself forgetting there are eight women playing her. However, at the same time, you see how all women can change so completely as their lives play out. We are all a conglomeration of many selves throughout life. I think Sarah Hinzman says it best: “When you think about it, using eight of us to tell the story of this one iconic woman might not be enough.”