Photos Steven Krause, Story David Bolling
If Eva Perón were still alive she’d be 98 years old and moving, we can assume, rather slowly. But if she were alive and had witnessed the flattering (if painfully honest) depiction of her life by Madonna in the 1996 film version of Evita, we’d like to believe she’d be equally happy to be portrayed this time by Sonoma’s great gift to musical theater, Ellen Toscano.
Toscano, who spent a decade wearing hat fruit, huge wigs and vamping every known female singer under the sun in San Francisco’s forever-running Beach Blanket Babylon, will appear as Evita in the stage production of the musical by Sonoma Arts Live, starting January 20 in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center. It couldn’t happen to a nicer diva.
And if Eva Peron were still alive—alive and sufficiently sentient to observe and understand the startlingly familiar nuances of the 2016 U.S. presidential election—she might have connected a few dots and discovered in her public persona a striking resemblance to the public persona of one Donald J. Trump. And if she had met Trump—and if he had managed to restrain himself from inappropriate if not abusive behavior—she might have found in America’s improbable new president a kindred soul.
Because the similarities are eerie. As the Evita lyrics by Tim Rice declare, “Instead of help we were given a crowd, she didn’t say much but she said it out loud.” Those words may prick the skin of Trump supporters, but for many they seem to have the ring of truth.
And to be fair, critics of Hillary might find just as much connection between the Clinton presidential campaign and Eva Perón’s failed candidacy to become vice president of Argentina.
So much for politics. That’s not on Ellen Toscano’s musical menu. Because what’s really important to Toscano, what she’s really singing about, is the chance to reprise a role she couldn’t quite fully inhabit when she was 18. Because, get this, Ellen Toscano has already been Evita, starring in that role as a high school senior at Justin Siena.
Most high school thespians play characters over their heads. But Evita? That had to be a stretch. As Toscano says now, that was “multiple lifetimes ago.” And what makes it even more meaningful is that the director of this grown-up Evita is her lifelong friend Lauren Miller, who was also the assistant director for the high school production.
The part fell in her lap from the social media sky after she posted an old photo on Facebook from the Justin Siena production showing the teenaged Toscano as Evita, in an iconic scene in which Eva Perón addresses the Argentine masses in a big white dress from a balcony of the royal palace.
“So I posted that picture and I guess I said something like, ‘I’d love to play this part again as an adult. It’s been so long since I’ve done anything besides comedy, and it’s such a strong, powerful female role.’ Vickie Whiting, who is on the board of Sonoma Arts Live, and a Facebook friend of mine, saw it and I guess mentioned it at a board meeting and then Jamie Love called me and she’s like, ‘I heard through the grapevine that Evita’s on your bucket list. Is that true?’ And here I am.”
The Evita fit is a welcome step for Toscano, who was mostly confined to comic roles during her Beach Blanket decade at Club Fugazi in North Beach, where she impersonated everyone from Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi (even doing Pelosi in front of Pelosi on one occasion) to Chiquita Banana, Carmen Miranda, Martha Stewart, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. She is now coming full circle, back to her dramatic roots.
Toscano attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which is the big time for theater schools.
“Man, it was hard. I auditioned for the musical theater program but got placed in an acting program called “Atlantic Theater Company,” which is not at all musical theater. No dancing, no singing. It was co-founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy. A lot of people who train there—a lot of film and TV actors—end up in Hollywood. It was totally a challenge for me because acting was not my strong suit. It was what I wanted to do and to be able to improve on, for sure. It was an incredible experience, of course. We were in acting studio from 9 to 6, three days a week. You’re surrounded by all these other talented people and you just want to be really good. And our regular general ed classes, through NYU, we had to take on our two days off from studio.”
The summer after she graduated she heard Beach Blanket was holding auditions and decided to go. She tried out, they called her back and threw the book at her.
“I had never been part of an audition where they’re like, ‘All right, now sing your song like Cher, now sing your song like you’re a Brazilian bombshell who just had 25 cups of coffee. Now sing it as Barbra Streisand. Now like Marilyn Monroe.’ They just keep throwing these different people at you, and it was really fun because you just kind of had to do it without thinking.”
When she got the part she was 22 years old, six months out of NYU, with “a fulltime, steady performing gig, near my family. It was truly like a dream come true.”
Part of the charm and the challenge of Beach Blanket was the constant script revisions to make each show reflect what was happening in the daily news cycle. “There was one time when I played Paris Hilton, and it was when she was in jail, out of jail, back in jail, back out of jail, on house arrest, and literally my lines changed every single night. It was sometimes 20 minutes before the show started, and like, “Here’s what you’re saying tonight.”
Toscano says she is “forever grateful” for the Beach Blanket experience but a decade was long enough. “There were other things I wanted to do. I really wanted more time flexibility. The crazy part about Beach Blanket is it’s been running for about 43 years. Potentially, it could be like you’re there until you can’t walk or sing anymore. That was so my dream job when I first got hired there. That is what I wanted to do. I just feel like my dreams have really shifted.”
To cushion the fall before leaving Beach Blanket, Toscano became a consultant with Rodan+Fields skin-care products, she performs frequently with her boyfriend’s band, T-Luke and the Tight Suits, and sings with a handful of other bands around the Bay Area. Last summer she performed with the Transcendence Theatre Company’s Broadway Under the Stars series at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen. She hopes to return for the 2017 season because, “They’re a very, very special group of people and man, you can’t beat the commute.”
Toscano, who is 5’10”, was a standout volleyball player in high school but gets most of her exercise these days on the dance floor or sweating it out at Bikram Yoga. She’s been practicing Vipassana meditation—one of the inspirations for the currently popular mindfulness movement—since her early 20s and did a silent meditation retreat at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center a year ago.
Staying in shape is particularly important at this moment because Evita is an exceptionally demanding part.
“It’s a huge show and it’s a vocal marathon, it’s a physical marathon, it’s a musical opera, so you’re on stage singing the whole time. And it’s a big story to tell, too.”
Preparing to be Evita has taken Toscano back to her drama school roots. “I’m doing research, I’m watching documentaries, I’m going back to my NYU training, doing scene analysis, which I haven’t touched in years. All of it is really a challenge, just really getting into that deep character development, finding the human in Eva Perón. I think in a lot of productions Evita can be very one-dimensional—just hard-hitting, powerful, blazing, and it’s not human nature to be that one-dimensional.”
That would appear to be a wise perception. In a 1945 radio interview, the real Eva Duarte (not yet Perón) described herself this way: “I am not an adventuress, although some (those who never forgive a young woman for succeeding) make me out to be one. I have spent more than five years dedicated to what is in me a firmly rooted vocation: the arts. These have been five years of troubles, of noble struggles when I’ve known the uncertainty of adversity as well as the gratification of success.”
Evita, who at least in part was famous because she was famous, was nevertheless a national icon who rose from illegitimate obscurity to become the most powerful woman in Argentina. A far cry, indeed, from Chiquita Banana, Carmen Miranda and Paris Hilton. And a great role of Ellen Toscano.