Arts

Review: The Gem Theatre’s ‘Evita’ Spotlights New Star in Lloyd Webber’s Classic

GIOVANNA MARTINEZ IN ONE MORE PRODUCTIONS' "EVITA" AT THE GEM THEATRE IN GARDEN GROVE, CA. PHOTO COURTESY OF Ron Lyon

One More Productions’ Evita entertainingly pays homage to the flawed but indisputably captivating Eva Perón through the lens of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s uninhibited rock opera. Until Sunday, July 14th, the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove is home to a rendition that spotlights exceptionally precocious musical theater virtuosos, notably leading lady Giovanna Martinez who gives a Broadway-caliber performance as the title character.

The premise grabs the observer with an attention-grabbing bulletin of Argentinian first-lady Eva Perón’s death — replete with casket — and backtracks to the rise of Eva in social and political circles as told by narrator Che who has no reservations about being objective. After Eva Perón (then known as Eva Duarte) meets crooner Agustín Magaldi, her ascent intersects with Colonel Juan Perón and his bid for the nation’s presidency. As Eva is caught between the aspirations characterizing her past, the present, and a longstanding promise to help the indigent, Che continues to uncover apparent truths hidden under a public relations-curated narrative. Notwithstanding the accusation of being fame-driven, Eva is believed to have a humanistic side after all, but due to circumstances outside her control, her legacy remains unresolved and at the mercy of debate.

Giovanna Martinez (slightly left of center on stage, in robe) and cast in One More Productions’ Evita at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, CA. Photo courtesy of Ron Lyon

Wearing dual hats as both director and musical director, Damien Lorton has yielded the very best out of a cast as young as 14 who effortlessly segue from one scene to the next, ensuring that the pacing of the dialogue-scarce musical never falters. And just as much as Lorton has elicited a compelling expressiveness and vocal liberation out of his performers, choreographers Angela Mattern, Julia Iacopetti, Erik Diaz, and Edvan Galván (also Juan Perón) have crafted rip-roaring dance sequences involving couples and the ensemble who twirl their garments, kick high, spin, march, stomp, and synchronously clap.

The immersion into Eva’s near two-decade journey is not only a testament to the show’s talented players, but a production design that makes excellent use of the Gem Theatre’s intimate space. Scenic designers Oscar Garcia and Sarai Ortiz, along with prop designer Victor Crisafulli, have filled the stage with two opposite-facing raised platforms, a podium accessible via stairs on either side, a fog machine, as well as easier-to-move pieces like black chairs, a bed, picket signs, rifles, and more.

Aaron Gibbs (center) and cast in One More Productions’ Evita at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, CA. Photo courtesy of Ron Lyon

In addition, Dan Baird’s sound design is crystal clear, exercising temperance to avoid being at an overpowering volume, in broadcasting the instrumentation of the backstage-seated band led by Nick Bravo and the cast’s collective vocalizations. Luis Cornejo and Alan Collins, the respective costume and wig/hair designers, similarly deserve plaudits for Eva’s stunning gowns and the brunette/blonde wigs alone. Not to mention, the makeup of Rocco Zappia facially flatters each of the ready-for-primetime actors, all of whom appear even more vivid when brightened by Jeremy Huff’s calculated lighting.

Still, while there are sundry reasons to make the trip to Garden Grove, there is one principal motivator: Giovanna Martinez’s star-making turn. The cover of the program has her name in a sizeable font right under the title, and it’s not difficult to see why. Martinez, a sophomore at Baldwin Wallace University, is the ultimate triple-threat asset and if Broadway had a yearly draft like in sports, she would undoubtedly be a coveted pick.

(L-R) Edvan Galván and Giovanna Martinez with the cast of One More Productions’ Evita at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, CA. Photo courtesy of Ron Lyon

Martinez does this presentation of Evita a great justice, coming across as determinedly ambitious with her outstretched arms, emoting when her persona has existential doubts, and bowling over attendees with her versatile, vibrato-powered register. Whether she’s dulcetly singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” or belting “A New Argentina” in a robust voice that would earn Patti Lupone’s euphoric approval, Martinez’s burgeoning status as a perennial headliner is simply an inevitability.

As a vanguard of the counter-culture perspective, Che, Aaron Gibbs exhibits a compelling stage presence, moving about and making appeals to the crowd about how Martinez’s Eva is not necessarily what she seems despite being heralded as infallible. Taking a page out of the playbook of Che Guevara  — whom the character is essentially based on, according to lyricist Tim Rice — Gibbs also impresses as a mouthpiece for the forgotten lower class, utilizing his mixed voice to maximal effect.

(Foreground, L-R) Edvan Galván and Giovanna Martinez with the cast of One More Productions’ Evita at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, CA. Photo courtesy of Ron Lyon

Edvan Galván offers a palpable legitimacy to the role of Juan Perón, appearing formidable in his military apparel, and yet not immune to Eva’s charms — just as the biographical accounts allude to. Moreover, Galván convincingly conveys President Perón’s amorality which sees a hint of sensitivity when his wife is stricken by terminal cancer.

Rounding out the principals are Jack Janowicz who evokes boisterous cheers with his sterling portrayal of the irresistible Agustín Magaldi, especially in “On This Night of a Thousand Stars,” and Isadora Salekfard who, at only 15, can seamlessly balance demonstrative sorrow with a sturdy, pitch-perfect cadence in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Talia Doyle, who is unbelievably a high school freshman, evinces sky-is-the-limit potential of her own in a vocal snippet during “Santa Evita.”

Giovanna Martinez (pictured at the podium) with the company of One More Productions’ Evita at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, CA. Photo courtesy of Ron Lyon

The remaining ensemble members, who are wonderfully skilled in navigating an array of  challenging numbers without missing a beat, are Kara Dillard, Harmony Ishikawa, Bryan Fan, Alexa Kushner, Allie Kyte, Sabina Martin, Cristina McAllister, Yessenia Buezo Muñoz, Nate Nolen, Matthew Rangel, Bruno Satalino, Max Seigel, Samantha Selaya, Zorro Sengupta, Lindsey VanGerpen, and Myles Williamson.

Overall, One More Productions’ Evita is a highly recommended musical worth experiencing, particularly among those who already live in Orange County. And although a valid argument can be made that this Evita is perhaps mostly reminiscent of a youth or college production because of the performers’ ages, the quality of the depictions, led by Giovanna Martinez’s extraordinarily layered interpretation and elite vocals as the complicated and controversial Eva Perón, takes this production to the next level. Suffice it to say, the Gem Theatre can comfortably lay claim to a winning show that is capable of standing toe-to-toe with any major regional theater production in North America.

One More Productions’ Evita at the Gem Theatre runs through Sunday, July 14th. To purchase tickets to the show, visit thegemoc.com.

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