There is nothing like seeing a crowd of wailing, breast-beating mourners at a state funeral to get things moving in a musical. But that’s how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (music) and Tim Rice’s (lyrics) pop operetta “Evita” begins, and with the media announcing that the title character has “entered immortality.” Fortunately, from that somber point on, until the show’s end when the same funereal postures are exhumed for the finale, it’s mostly up and out of the coffin for Evita, the infamous Argentinean dictator who meteorically rose from back-street slut to front-page saint.
It is more than likely that those who never experienced the excitement of Hal Prince’s original Broadway staging in which Patti LuPone was catapulted to stardom will be stirred by this completely re-imagined and staged production under the direction of Michael Grandage. That this is a more visually inventive and stunning to look at production, a hit in London, certainly does no disservice to the more pretentiously original award-winning concept, and is rather more entertaining in its fragmented parts. At its best, this “Evita” resplendently delivers as an ears and eyes-filling entertainment without ever being the passion and power-driven vehicle it so desperately wants to be.
Grandage’s vision is based less on a turbulent eruption of graphic political imagery than it is filled with sensual dynamics. It is a testament to the power of sex and scenery as co-provocateurs. In the title role, Elena Roger may be petite and her voice a bit too thin to get the most out her arias, notably “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” but she makes it quite clear that this Evita’s goals and aspirations are as sturdily defined by an empowering sexual drive as they are by mere ambition.
I applaud Grandage for stepping out beyond the authenticity and austerity of the original staging and making this “Evita” work on a more tumultuously fluid and frenzied level with the crowd scenes particularly invigorating and without losing the pulse of the show’s principal characters or the heartbeat of Argentina. The tango-punctuated, pulse-racing choreography by Rob Ashford is a major component.
The main adornment is, as it should be, the enigmatic Eva Duarte. This role of an opportunist whose phenomenal rise and tragic fall begs neither empathy nor disdain is uniquely interpreted by Roger, who is making her Broadway debut, and despite her lack of physical stature, leaves no doubt that she has risen to the occasion.
As the authors have created such a disjointed and episodic structure in which to trash and truncate the best and worst of the Peron regime, it is a marvel to see any actress cope with more than this musical’s superficial demands. With signature blonde hairdo slicked back for business, Roger plows through the sometimes tempestuous, sometimes grating, mostly angst-driven arias with dramatic conviction, even if the show’s most famous aria (mentioned above) loses a little of its audience-pandering persuasiveness.
Then there is the pivotal role of Che Guevara to consider, the show’s narrator, point-of-view character, and general provocateur. Here Grammy-winning pop super star Ricky Martin takes a low-voltage charge of a role that is a direct counter punch to the hypocritical action. Bouncing in and out of the scenes with a commendably embittered drive, he is primarily seen as both the passionate spokesman and sardonic interpreter of truth. At the performance I saw, the audience made a point of showing this undeniably charismatic performer where their adoration was primarily focused.
Michael Cerveris continues to add to his growing string of memorable roles with another stirring performance as Peron, the general who could balance both majesty and mistress. In the latter role Maya Jade Frank brought the requisite poignancy to the show’s most plaintive solo, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Max Von Essen was amusingly suave and unctuous as Eva’s early lover/mentor Magaldi. Impressive work by the chorus also added considerable dimension to this ambitious production.
With its forceful use of projections (actual newsreel and archival footage of the Perons) and the stunning costume and scenic designs by Christopher Oram, “Evita” probably remains less the critic’s darling than the people’s choice. This time, I’ll vote with the people. ***
“Evita,” Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway, at 45th Street For tickets ($67 to $137) call Telecharge: 800-432-7780.