By Bill Hirschman
In this era of hedonistic avaricious conscienceless celebrities, the Evita depicted in the eponymous musical is almost refreshing in her comparatively pure pursuit of fame and power for their own sake.
Perhaps that’s the secret behind this acclaimed musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Somehow you muster a little compassion for this scheming manipulative pragmatist while horrified at how much humanity she is willing to sacrifice.
This national tour of the 2012 Broadway revival is, like Maltz Jupiter Theatre productions, a strong fresh edition that gives the raw material a thorough makeover but does not deconstruct the piece. The experience is helped immeasurably by the clarion voices of the lead actors and even the supporting performers. The only facets missing most of the time are the electric sizzle and raging passions that marked earlier productions.
The tour directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn is based on Michael Grandage’s staging and Rob Ashford’s choreography. They doggedly jettison any shred of the original 1978 vision of Harold Prince and Larry Fuller such as the musical chairs concept for “The Art of the Possible.” Here the five junta candidates to lead the country eliminate each other in wrestling falls.
A wickedly wry immorality tale, it lays out the life of Eva Duarte de Peron, a poor small town girl whose consuming ambition made her first a radio and film star in post-war Argentina and then the profligate Lady Macbeth to military dictator Juan Peron. But Rice used her story as a vehicle to skewer establishment politics and the bankrupt integrity of the ruling class.
Evita began life as a 1976 concept album similar to the team’s earlier Jesus Christ Superstar and became a West End hit in 1978 directed by Harold Prince. The Broadway transfer in 1979 made a star out of Patti LuPone who hated her time in the demanding role. All she came out with was a Tony, a star’s reputation and a friendship with newcomer Mandy Patinkin who played the narrator Che.
If Superstar made Americans notice Webber and Rice, Evita cemented their reputations as the next wave of mainstream theater artists: Webber for a meld of eclectic styles from Latin to rock to operatic recitative; Rice for mercilessly cutting lyrics. The show’s less charitable view of Evita has been subsequently challenged as being drawn from a decidedly anti-Peronista biography, but the creative team likely did not mean the musical to be a History Channel episode.
In this edition, everyone involved has embraced Rice’s acerbic cynicism. Caroline Bowman’s Evita comes across as an almost amorally voracious social climber. Bowman accepts Evita’s calculating manipulations such as forever “modestly” proclaiming a bogus camaraderie with the sheep she is seducing. But Bowman understands Evita’s ultimate duality: she may not be genuinely altruistic on behalf of the common people whose name she invokes, but she doesn’t look down on them as Juan Peron does. She’s just out for herself; she doesn’t necessarily want to harm anyone else.
Webber’s score is famously demanding for notes that rudely shove at the upper and lower registers of its singers. Bowman had a little trouble at the deep end of the sadistically difficult range of “Buenos Aires.” But her top notes and her expressive delivery of the ballads were impressive.
Josh Young, who won praise for his Broadway debut as Judas in the recent Superstar revival, delivered a hunky blue collar Che suffused with the anger that comes from disillusionment. Young makes it clear that Che feels betrayed, but deep down he wants to believe in Eva’s promise as the savior of their people. His warm voice nestled somewhere between as tenor and baritone was as clear and strong as anyone in the cast.
Peron himself was essayed by tall and slender Sean MacLaughlin who almost seemed geeky without being able to see his facial features back in Row S in the critic’s corner. But when he sang, that deep baritone sounds like it was emanating from the depths of someplace where morality is equated with weakness and souls are something to snack on.
Inserted in the score is “You Must Love Me,” Evita’s dying swan song, the number written for the 1996 film version with Madonna so that it could compete for a best original song Oscar.
Several musical numbers seemed a little muted although they remain effective. The rolling thunder of the Act One closer, “A New Argentina” usually makes an audience want to go out and behead the one-percenters (although many of the patrons at the Kravis were the one-percenters). This time, it was stirred the blood, but not much more than to want to go to the bar at intermission.
A very few fairly crackled, notably the meeting of Eva and Juan in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You.” The razor-toothed carnivores circled each other, savoring the sexual pleasure in finding a mate precisely as ambitious, greedy and pragmatic as they were.
Fresh touches are evident everywhere including new arrangements and orchestrations with vocal flourishes for the leading lady. Grandage and Ashford have overhauled the staging such as extending the fever dream montage as Evita reviews her life while on her deathbed. Unlike the original’s essentially bare stage with added appointments, designer Christopher Oram backed the entire stage with the presidential palace and its iconic balcony overlooking several arches and a gallery. The atmosphere is amped up by the stylistic lighting design of Neil Austin, favoring backlit silhouettes with the rays of light shooting through a frequently haze-filled stage.
It helps to have read a synopsis ahead of time if you don’t know the show to understand a few plot points that speed by. That’s because some lyrics are admirably comprehensible, even in some of the group numbers. But many times the words are unintelligible, especially in breakneck numbers like “Buenos Aires.”
The costumes are note perfect and particular to this show other than Eva’s famous white gown. To avoid the Harold Prince vision, Che is not dressed in Army fatigues and black beret but in a field laborer’s clothes. Rice said repeatedly that Che was never meant to be a stand-in for Che Guevara; that was Prince’s idea.
If this isn’t a radically “New Argentina,” it’s fresh enough to merit a return visit.
Evita runs through April 13 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Boulevard, West Palm Beach. Running time: 2 hours not including a 20-minute intermission. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $30– $72. For more information, call 561-832-7469 or visit kravis.org. It moves to the Arsht Center in Miami, May 27-June 1.