April 5, 2012
Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a lot of abuse, and deserves most of it—but not for “Evita,” which is so much better than “Jesus Christ Superstar” that you wonder how both scores could have been composed by the same man. Whatever its deficiencies as history, “Evita” is a formidable piece of theater, and Michael Grandage’s revival, which has now transferred to Broadway after a long run on London’s West End, makes a wholly persuasive case for the 1978 musical in which Tim Rice and Baron Lloyd-Webber (as he is now officially styled) told how an Argentine actress-tart found happiness by bedding and wedding an up-and-coming caudillo.
Though Mr. Rice is only a fair-to-middling lyricist, he has contrived to turn the tale of Eva and Juan Perón (Elena Roger and Michael Cerveris) into a compelling chronicle of love and politics, and the music is for the most part worthy of the occasion. As always, Mr. Lloyd Webber’s tunes turn sugary whenever emotions run high, but his feel for large-scale scenic construction is unfailingly impressive. Much of “Evita,” which has almost no spoken dialogue, holds together as well as any of the extended musical sequences in “Sweeney Todd.” Heresy, I know, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that “Evita” is worthy of direct comparison to Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece. Still, the best parts are good enough to make the worst parts tolerable, and if you listen with an open ear, you may be pleasantly surprised by the quality of what you hear.
Mr. Grandage and Rob Ashford, the choreographer, have worked together so closely on “Evita” that you’d think the whole show had been staged by one prodigiously gifted man. Christopher Oram’s monumental sets are satisfyingly old-fashioned, and Neil Austin has lighted them in a spectacular manner that put me in mind, appropriately enough, of “Triumph of the Will.” Never are you in doubt that the subject of “Evita” is the horrors that ensue when power joins hands with glamour (“Instead of a government we had a stage / Instead of ideas, a prima donna’s rage”). Needless to say, it would have taken a Sondheim—or a Kurt Weill—to do justice to so complex a theme, but “Evita” comes closer than you’d expect.
I wish I could report that Ms. Roger is up to the challenge of the title role. No dice: She’s a good actor and a wonderful dancer, but her voice is small and shrill, and she hasn’t an ounce of star quality. Fortunately, Mr. Cerveris has more than enough to go around. To be sure, the part of Juan Perón is ungratefully small, but he plays it as though it were huge, and his stage presence is so electric that he steals the show from Ms. Roger in “You Must Love Me” without saying a word or moving a muscle, which is quite a trick. Ricky Martin is both likable and effective as Che, the strolling narrator, and the chorus is top-notch (though Kristen Blodgette, the conductor, should have insisted on sharper diction—I kept longing for supertitles).
Never having seen Harold Prince’s much-admired original production of “Evita,” I’m not in a position to compare it to this one, and in a way I’m glad. Despite the inadequacies of its nominal star, Mr. Grandage’s “Evita” is an impressive achievement that should be judged on its own merits, which are legion. Even if you don’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, it will hold your eye from curtain to curtain.