Review: ‘Camila’

Well, here's a novel idea: Write a sultry musical about Argentina based on a historical story in which a young woman dies a tragic death and becomes a heroine of the people. "Camila," despite a juicy love plot, anti-fascist politics and the allure of the current tango trend, is likely to disappear without anybody crying for "Evita."

Well, here’s a novel idea: Write a sultry musical about Argentina based on a historical story in which a young woman dies a tragic death and becomes a heroine of the people. “Camila,” despite a juicy love plot, anti-fascist politics and the allure of the current tango trend, is likely to disappear without anybody crying for “Evita.”

In 19th-century Argentina, during the hideous reign of bloodthirsty Juan Manuel de Rosas, a debutante falls in love with a priest. They run off together and are hunted down by the Federalist troops, having been betrayed both by his monsignor and her father. Both are executed and she becomes a folkloric saint for courageously asserting her right to follow her heart and resist repression. The story, we are told, was a forbidden one, passed on from generation to generation in secret.

Lori McKelvey’s take on politics, religion and forbidden sexuality has all the subtlety of a teenage girl aflame, and the generic music, under BT McNicholl’s direction, has every song sung facing the audience, underlining the show’s high-schoolish quality.

Disconcertingly, all the characters who die reappear to dance later on. A few production numbers stand out: the stirring “Twenty Drops of Blood” and the lively “La Chacarera,” neither of which is, significantly, a tango.

The powerful O’Gorman family apparently was first shamed by La Perchona, the paternal grandmother, whose love affair long ago with a Spanish viceroy also ended in death and political disgrace. As this tarot-reading, tango-dancing grandma, Jane Summerhays smolders hilariously, seeming in desperate need of some wheels to move her around the stage. Elizabeth Sastre is perfectly predictable in the title role — pretty enough, melodic enough, but just as generic as the role and the songs.

Only Michael Hayden, after his fine work in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” turns in a genuine and charming performance as the passionate priest, with a strong, clear melodic voice. His over-the-top flagellation scene needs to be toned down, although perhaps his masochistic zeal is to compensate for his character’s not realizing until well along in his love affair that perhaps their torrid hijinks are inappropriate for a priest.

The costumes are vulgar beyond belief, and the set, which keeps coming and going, lends nothing necessary to the action. The choreography gratuitously insists on dancers upstage as soft-core porn illustrations of downstage dream narrations, and even the showpiece of act one, Francisco Forquera’s sensational display of bola-twirling and foot-stomping — also posthumously reprised — seems self-conscious and show-offy rather than electrifying; it certainly has nothing to do with the plot or his character.

Camila

Walnut Street Theater, Philadelphia; 1,075 Seats; $55 Top

Production

A Walnut Street Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Lori McKelvey. Directed by BT McNicholl.

Creative

Choreography by Richard Stafford. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Suzy Benzinger; lighting, Brian Nason; orchestrations, Robert Elhai; sound, Scott Smith; music direction and dance arrangements, Albin E. Konopka; stage manager, Debi Marcucci. Opened, reviewed Sept. 12, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Camila O'Gorman - Elizabeth Sastre
Ladislao Gutierrez - Michael Hayden
La Perchona - Jane Summerhays
Senora O'Gorman - Alma Cuervo
Senor O'Gorman - David Brummel
With: Laurie Ferdman, Kevin Duda, William Parry, Bruce Winant, Sylvia Roldan Dohi, Renee Bonadio, Rosa Collantes, Angela DeCicco, Enrique Cruz De Jesus, Angel Garcia, Michael Licata, Mary Martello, Wilson Mendieta, Michael Oberlander, Spencer Rowe, Ellen Sowney, Jason Adamo, Maria Feeley, Francisco Forquera, Dean Malissa, Rebecca Schall.
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