May River Theatre Co. to present "Evita" as you've never seen it before

Livie Schwerdt plays Eva Peron in the May River Theatre's upcoming production of "Evita."
Livie Schwerdt plays Eva Peron in the May River Theatre's upcoming production of "Evita." Jay Karr/Lowcountry Current

"Evita," the Tony-award winning musical that has moved audiences worldwide, is making its way to Bluffton beginning May 11 in a production by May River Theatre Co.

It is no small task to bring such grandeur to a cozy community theater, but Wendell MacNeal was up for the challenge when approached by theater co-founder Jodie Dupuis. As a resident of Sun City Hilton Head, MacNeal has directed five Sun City shows over five years. His most recent work was "Arsenic and Old Lace."

"I saw (MacNeal's shows) 'Brigadoon' and 'Little Mary Sunshine' and liked them. I thought, I can sit back and let someone else direct this time," said Dupuis, who is choreographing the show, which will run for nine performances.

MacNeal, the nephew of the late American jazz great Cab Calloway, first directed "Evita" several years ago at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts in Brookfield, Conn. That theater's stage was larger, and MacNeal worked with a big cast and a full orchestra.

"The challenges are taking a major production, such as 'Evita,' and putting it into a smaller venue," MacNeal said. "It necessitated me having to rethink, reblock, reconceptionalize the whole thing."

May River's production features Livie Schwerdt as Eva Peron, Pete Zeleznik as Juan Peron, Daniel Cort as Che, and May River newcomer Michael Cofield as Magaldi. The chorus includes nine women and seven men.

Adam Rich is the musical director. Rich has been a mainstay at the theater for a few years, but this will be his last show as he continues his theater career in Texas.

"Evita," with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, is the story of Eva Peron, the controversial first lady of post-World War II Argentina. She was affectionately known as Evita. The story follows her early life to her rise to power, before dying of cancer at age 33. The show won eight Tony Awards in 1980, including best musical, best actress (Patti Lupone) and best actor (Mandy Patinkin).

"You're going to see a version of 'Evita' that has not been done anywhere else than here," MacNeal said. "My intention is to bring the audience into the emotionality of the play. An audience will come to a theater and see it and hear it. In this particular instance, I'm going to have the audience feel the play. I'm bringing the actors down (from the stage)."

"Evita" is Schwerdt's sixth show with the company. She recently revived her part in "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," with the original May River Theatre cast.

"She has a beautiful voice that befits the character," MacNeal said of his leading lady, who is a Bluffton resident and equestrian student at Savannah College of Art and Design. "Vocally, she's suited. Physically, she's suited. Emotionally, she's suited. She's the total package."

"Evita'" is Zeleznik's ninth play in three years at May River Theatre. He said he finds the role of Evita's husband demanding on many levels.

"The music is fantastic," said Zeleznik, a Hilton Head Island resident. "For me, I've never played a part like this. He's a ridged, military-dictator type guy, and the music is very challenging as well. It's the hardest music I've sung."

Cort is an original member of the May River Theatre, first appearing in an acting and singing role in 2002. The Bluffton resident starred as Billie Flynn in the company's production of "Chicago" last spring. Cofield is a Bluffton attorney who is making his May River Theatre debut.