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Roberts lights up the stage in MusicalFare’s ‘Evita’

You must love “Evita.”

This is the aching imperative made clear in the first dissonant notes of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most inventive musical, a flawed story about a flawed figure flecked with moments of transcendent beauty. And try as you may to avoid her charms, she’s liable to win you over in the end.

Local companies seldom produce the show, which plays through Aug. 7 in MusicalFare Theatre. And it stands to reason. The mere mention of Webber’s score, layered with complex harmonies and often set in a stratospheric register, is enough to strike dread into the hearts of the most seasoned Broadway belters.

Among the few local performers capable of dragging Webber’s manic vision of the Argentine heroine Eva Perón down to earth is Michele Marie Roberts, whose extraordinary vocal gifts and versatility have made her an irresistible stage presence.

In this compact and powerful production of “Evita,” directed by Randall Kramer and choreographed for the company’s small stage by Doug Weyand, Roberts applies her talents as a theatrical chameleon as a master forger might apply paint. It’s an approach that fits perfectly with the reputation of Evita, whom critics accused of constant posturing and political opportunism.

In the cheeky tango number “On This Night of a Thousand Stars,” reprised throughout the evening as one of Webber’s many addictive leitmotifs, she shifts gracefully from ingenue to overlord, batting her eyelashes one moment and glaring past them the next.

In her first meeting with the rising general Juan Perón, Roberts adopts a much more suave demeanor that betrays subtle hints of insecurity. Against John Fredo’s charming performance as Perón, Roberts’ Evita stays monochromatic at first, biding her time until she can bust out her full emotional palette.

That she does, in a series of vocal gymnastics displays that push her voice into territory previously reserved for songbirds. On “Rainbow High,” an LSD-trip of a song about her rise to the upper echelons of power, Roberts embodies both the light and dark sides of ambition. When she sings that the people “need to adore me, so Christian Dior me, from my head to my toes” – one of the few inspired lyrics in an otherwise tepid effort from Tim Rice – it’s clear she’s lost the plot.

She gets it back before the end, when weakness creeps into her body and her voice, leaving Argentina – and the audience – bereft. But watching Roberts on that journey, ricocheting from one emotion and one octave to the next, is thrilling.

“Evita,” set in Argentina in the 1940s and ’50s is by no means a perfect show. Especially in a small setting like MusicalFare, some of its key scenes and transitions can cause a kind of emotional disconnect. The grandiosity of the act-one closer “A New Argentina,” for instance, comes on much too strong after the quietude of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” (performed by the gifted Arianne Davidow) and the anxiety-riddled “Peron’s Latest Flame.”

But its staging, which emphasizes the difference in disposition between the stuffy upper classes and the workers Evita claims to represent, is a piece of genius that MusicalFare has restaged here with no shortage of creativity. For instance, Kramer recreated a number typically staged as a game of musical chairs (“The Art of the Possible” as a game of Russian roulette. This ups the emotional stakes in a way that dovetails with the anxious tone of the production.

While other aspects of the production can seem a touch too big or too loud for the space, Weyand’s choreography is just right for the stage and the performers, melding many disparate influences into a cohesive whole.

Marc Sacco’s performance as Che is assured vocally on point, but his righteous anger has been cranked up to 11 and begs to be slightly modulated. Otherwise, the ensemble performs with consummate skill, navigating Chris Schenk’s fine set with unhurried grace.

There’s no doubt that MusicalFare’s decision to mount “Evita” was a risk. Roberts’ decision to take on the role was a risk. But I’m happy to report, after two hours watching one of Buffalo’s top performers at the top of her craft, that the risks have paid off.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com