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'Evita' Cedar Rapids native living his dream in Broadway revival's national tour

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UPDATED: 22 August 2014 | 12:42 pm   ::  

Cedar Rapids native Christopher Johnstone was all set to perform at Brucemore's Cabaret in the Courtyard last year when the call came to tango with Eva Peron. He just had to hit the road to fulfill a childhood dream.

He plays a featured role on the first national tour of "Evita," hot off its 2012 Broadway revival. The award-winning Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that showcases the rise and fall of Argentina's beloved first lady from the late 1940s is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center for four performances Aug. 21 to 23.

Johnstone, 32, calls his involvement "an interesting story that's come full circle."

"Back when I was 13, I remember owning the soundtrack. I didn't really know what a musical was," he says by phone from his home in Manhattan, during the tour's recent summer break.

"But I had happened to see the movie and thought it was so cool. I obtained the soundtrack and would just listen to it over and over again and would sing along to the words - even though I didn't know what half of it meant - just because I thought the music was so clever. I also loved soundtracks, and because it's an epic score, that's what drew me to it," he says.

"From a very early age, I knew what 'Evita' is, which is somewhat obscure to most people. It was the only musical I really did know before going to high school and college, so it is really fun to now finally be a part of it and remember all those words - and now have a full understanding of that story."

In Act I, he plays Agustin Magaldi, the famous tango singer who "discovers" Eva and becomes the first man she manipulates on her climb up Argentina's social and political ladder.

"It's a great role," says Johnstone, who describes Magaldi in several colorful ways before landing on "arrogant jerk."

"He starts out in the beginning, getting to sing this awesome song, 'On This Night of a Thousand Stars.' He has to show off and play a singer, which is fun for me because I am. Eva loves seeing this man in the spotlight. She's really drawn to him and wants a piece of that. They have a one-night stand, and then he goes to leave, because he's just on tour."

When she insists on going with him, he says no, but Eva and her family force him to take her to Buenos Aires.

"He's the meal ticket to allow her to begin her journey in the big city," Johnstone says.

A 1999 graduate of Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School and veteran of the school's fleet-footed national champion West Side Delegation show choir, Johnstone also loves his current role because he gets to tango with Eva. "I secretly wanted to be a dancer," he says.

Magaldi's story arc ends by intermission, but since so many people are needed for the big songs and scenes in Act II, Johnstone reappears as other characters, including a general, an aristocrat and a worker. He returns as Magaldi for a montage at the end.

Johnstone, whose vocal range spans baritone and tenor, spent his college years studying voice, earning an undergraduate degree in vocal performance at Arizona State University and a master's degree in opera at California State Long Beach, before adding "the polish" at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

He performed in operas and operettas before getting his first big Broadway show, understudying two lead roles in the 2009 Lincoln Center touring production of "South Pacific."

He's been a featured soloist with orchestras across the country, from the Cincinnati Pops and Boston Pops to the Tanglewood Music Center. He has more concerts on the horizon, including the National Symphony Orchestra's Labor Day Concert on Aug. 31 on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. He'll sing patriotic numbers and the national anthem, as well as such Broadway blockbusters as "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables," "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha" and "Some Enchanted Evening" from "South Pacific."

That's a long way from the Jefferson High School stage, but not such a surprising leap. He performed at Carnegie Hall in February, under the familiar baton of Pete Eklund, his West Side Delegation director.

"I'm from the dynasty when we went to Showstoppers (national competition) and won the grand champions. It was such a great time and such a great thing to be part of," Johnstone says. "People who watch 'Glee' say that's so cool - and that was us."

His family moved to California after he graduated. That's where they began to realize the impact of an Iowa education. He says his brothers were at least a year ahead of their California peers.

"There is no better education than Iowa," Johnstone says. "We have the best, most special experience growing up, and you don't realize that until you go to other places."

Hearing other singers' stories drives home the realization that their educational experiences are "just not as special as what we had in Cedar Rapids," he says. "I'm very proud of that and I think it's so special for people to know that."

He runs into actress Megan Reinking in New York, and is immediately transported back to 2001, when they played the parents in the rock opera "Tommy" at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Like Reinking, Johnstone has jumped over to the television realm. Among his credits are "All My Children" and "Personal Justice."

"Evita" rehearsals began in August 2013 in New York. The show opened Sept. 8 in Providence, R.I., and has been playing coast to coast ever since. It's slated to close in October at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The cast had a four-week midsummer break, so Johnstone jumped at the chance to vacation in Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and France, before heading home to New York.

Even though cooking in his own kitchen and sleeping in his own bed were "sort of amazing," having another suitcase in another hall hasn't grown old for him.

"It's like a paid vacation to tour the country and see places that you wouldn't normally see."

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

WHAT: "Evita"

WHERE: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 22; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 23

TICKETS: $33 to $87

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