Enrique Acevedo and Natalie Cortez in EVITA at Riverside Theatre.
By PAM HARBAUGH
From composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice to directors Harold Prince and Alan Parker, men stepped up to recount the rags to riches drama of the notorious Eva Peron. Now, with Riverside Theatre’s upcoming production of the musical “Evita,” it will be a woman’s turn to tell the story.
The fact is not lost on director/choreographer MARCIA MILGROM DODGE that she is probably one of a handful of women who have directed a major production of this landmark musical.
“I’m going to bring my DNA to the project,” she said. “I have a big responsibility as a woman helming this production.”
Ms. Dodge, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her pristine 2009 direction of the revival of “Ragtime,” hastens to add that there’s no reason a man cannot understand a woman’s story. And vice versa for that matter. But, she said, it’s “nice to have a woman direct a woman’s story.”
To that end, she’ll also be working with Riverside’s music director ANN SHUTTLESWORTH and its lighting designer, YAEL LUBETZKY, both of whom do repeatedly stellar, energetic work on the Equity theater’s professional stage. In fact, Ms. Dodge calls them “fierce women.”
Mr. Webber and Mr. Rice created the musical, “Evita,” in 1978. It moved from London to Broadway in 1979 where it won eight Tony Awards including those for best musical and best score. Its iconic anthem is “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
The storyline revolves around Eva Peron, who dug her way out of poverty to find fortune and fame as the wife of corrupt Argentine dictator, President Juan Peron. The people who both loved and hated her affectionately dubbed her “Evita”.Ms. Dodge has heard people say the only way to do the show is to fill it with “razzamatazz.” She says no to that. Instead, she wants to dig into it and into the character to discover truths behind this legendary woman.
“I’m spending two hours with this woman, her rise and her demise,” she said. “I want to understand why she does what she does.”
Indeed. Ms. Dodge should bring some different insight to Eva Person.
At 63 years of age with decades of professional experience in an industry not known for letting the girls play in the boys’ clubhouse, Ms. Dodge has the distinction of being the first woman hired by the Kennedy Center to direct a major musical.
The musical was the 2009 revival of “Ragtime.”
And that came about because the “Ragtime” composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens went to Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser and told him that they wanted her to direct the musical.
Mr. Flaherty and Ms. Ahrens knew her work from two of their other works, “Seussical” and “Once on this Island.”
“Lynn had been aware of my work from the late ‘80s,” Ms. Dodge said. “I wasn’t new to them, but I wasn’t in their camp. I was off doing regional theater.”
So, fast forward 20 years, from the late ‘80s to 2009, and Marcia Milgrom Dodge has finally made it to Broadway and not only that, she’s also thrust into the heady atmosphere of the Tony Awards as a nominee for best direction of a musical.
(It went to Mr. Terry Johnson for the revival of “La Cage aux Folles.”)
“It didn’t change my life,” she said. “But it was one of the most exciting times in my life because I felt welcomed into the Broadway community, which I admired from afar.”
As a woman in the theater, Ms. Dodge says had always just been doing the work.
“I reach out and I make myself present and accessible for all the work and hopefully I’ll get the call,” she said. “But it’s not lost on me that I’m a woman in a business that still has a long way to go.”
She sees changes in regional theater, and that’s good, she said. She lists women like director Pam MacKinnon, who’s just been hired as the new artistic director of the venerable American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Hana S. Sharif will be the new artistic director at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. And Stephanie Ybarra was recently named artistic director of the Baltimore Center Stage.
“It’s going to be 2019 and things are just now shifting,” she said. “Boards are taking a good hard look at how to take theater into the future.”
But Ms. Dodge is proud of the hard work she has done and is also proud to be a role model to her 21-year old daughter, Natasha Sydney Dodge, who is graduating from George Washington University this year.
“The best thing she’s seen is watching her mom work her ass off to get where she is,” she said.
No doubt about it, Natasha takes pride in her mother’s achievements and said her mother is a strong woman who’s made an important impact in American theater.
“For as long as I can remember, my mom has always taken risks in terms of reimagining traditional theater,” Natasha said. “(She) is not afraid to claim her space as a woman in theater. It is so inspiring and I can see how it had led other women to follow her lead and take risks in their own art as well.”
Moreover, Natasha said her mother stands up for women who come forward in the #MeToo movement.
It shows in her work, Natasha said.
“Since then, you can see in her projects how much women have become even more central to her storytelling.”
And that storytelling has become a passion for the woman who grew from a choreography student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to a sought-after director in important regional professional theaters, like Riverside.
This is her fifth show at Riverside Theatre, where she’s also directed “Anything Goes,” “Dames at Sea” Blithe Spirit” and “Knight Life/The Girl Who Would Be King.” Already, expectations are high for “Evita” and the theater had to add performances to accommodate ticket demand.
“We are fortunate to have Marcia back with us at Riverside,” said Allen D. Cornell, Producing Artistic Director of Riverside Theatre. “As a busy, in-demand director, I knew she would enjoy the opportunity of doing this challenging piece of musical history.”
Now it’s one of the biggest shows about a larger than life woman, “Evita.” And, ironically, it’s a show concerning an ambitious woman being rewarded with her demise.
Nevertheless, it is a big show. And tackling that means tearing into the script, which here has scant stage directions. In fact, Ms. Dodge said, its presentation is that of a rock album format.
“So you have to get in there and figure it out,” she said. “Oscar Hammerstein wrote very thoughtful stage directions about where things were and how people felt during this event. There’s none of that in this text. So it’s all for me to figure out.”
Since Ms. Dodge has deep experience as a choreographer and since Argentina is famous for its love of the tango, she’s setting the show in a dance hall. The story will be told by dancers and sung.
“I have some amazing triple threats,” she said. (A triple threat is someone who can sing, dance and act.)
One of those is Natalie Cortez, who is cast as Eva. Ms. Cortez was in the 2006 Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.” She played Anita in the 2009 revival of “West Side Story,” famously directed by its librettist Arthur Laurents.
So, Ms. Dodge said, “two strong chicks” will be at the top of this production.
“Directing this particular woman in a first class production has always been told by a man,” she said. “And the material is written by men. “It’s a woman’s turn.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Evita” runs Jan. 8 to 27 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach, FL. Tickets start at $35. Call 772-231-6990, visit RiversideTheatre.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in the Melbourne Beachsider.