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EVITA

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Eva Peron was a phenomenon of improbable achievement. So, too, is James Blackman III's Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, which gives this Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice saga of la Peron's amazing rise and fall its second go-round. Its 1993 Evita was thrilling. This one arguably is the best yet. Played by vibrant, voluptuous Christa Jackson, Evita herself never looked better. Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities never looked better, though in the throes of a major reconstruction, with a temporarily ragged facade and no Klieg lights. Doesn't matter. Evita lights up the sky without them.

Riches of its Broadway-worthy staging include an early 20th century history lesson; a glimpse into Argentina's vivid soul; dynamic, creative, and exciting choreography; a keenly calibrated cast; some of Lloyd Webber's best music from Steven Landau's full-scale orchestra, and new psychological shadings and highlights on Eva Peron's character. Was she "the self-serving, scheming wife of a corrupt dictator," or "the generous, loyal servant of Argentina's poorest," practically a saint? Perhaps some of both.

In song, dance, and film the musical chronicles Eva's rapid and risky rise—propelled by a little talent, a little beauty, a lot of sex appeal, and boundless energy from humble beginnings on the remote pampas, the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished seamstress—to exalted status as Argentina's adored First Lady. Jackson is a terrific, impassioned Evita, a starry-eyed brunette blazing with youthful high spirits, listening to sleazy, seductive tango singer Magaldi's memorable "Night of a Thousand Stars." John Racca's Magaldi is Eva's ticket to "the Big Apple." She's off like a rocket to Buenos Aires; from now on there's no stopping her.

Michael A. Ross is emphatic and fiery as Eva's constant needler, and the play's commentator, conscience, and naysayer, firebrand Che—a rebellious, volatile character and an audience favorite. Eva's meeting with Peron, her seduction of him in song with "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You," is a highlight, her voice ranging from crystalline soprano to mellow cello tones to blend beautifully with the rich operatic baritone of Ronald M. Banks' mask-like Juan Peron, as tango dancers Karen LaMarche Roberto and Vincent Zamora in flame-red costumes pulsate with sensuous subtext in the background. Banks' Peron is a creature of ice, a mechanical man—the little man on the wedding cake. It works to underscore the play's diamond-hard dark glitter. Deanna Aguinaga as Peron's Mistress is made short work of. Evita carelessly sends her packing, and her wistful lament, "Another Suitcase, Another Hall," is potent comment on the pain of careless love.

Sha Newman, choreographer and director of musical staging in the earlier Evita, comes fully into her own here as director and choreographer. Her beautifully articulated direction underscores the play's saturnine brilliance. Her creative, innovative, imaginative choreography is electric.

Production elements as usual here are flawless, with lush costumes by Shon LeBlanc, lighting by Raun Yankovich, sound by John Feinstein. The set is uncredited. This Evita is not to be missed; it's a true-life myth in modern idiom, and Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities is a treasure in our midst.

"Evita," presented by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. June 1-16. $35-50. (310) 372-4477.

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