April 5, 2012
Arguably the best of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals and the least dated of his collaborations with lyricist Tim Rice, Evita gets its first-ever Broadway revival almost 30 years after ending its original smash run. In the assured hands of director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford, fresh electricity charges through the poperatic 1978 saga of the immortalization of Argentine First Lady Eva Perón, a juicy anti-heroine captured with teeth and claws in a sensational performance by Elena Roger.
While Buenos Aires-born Roger is new to Broadway, this production made her a star in London, where it originated in 2006. At the risk of sounding harsh, the actress is physically unprepossessing – short and beaky – not to mention occasionally shrill in the vocal department. But she acts the hell out of the role.
In Eva’s thrilling arrival in the big city, “Buenos Aires,” Roger dances up a storm while exuding such bold ambition, determination and confidence that she grows in stature and beauty before our eyes. It’s no empty boast when she heralds her own “star quality” in song. In a town where vast numbers of theatergoers still attribute ownership of the role to Patti LuPone, it takes chutzpah to step into those shoes. Roger has it to spare.
The other bit of headline casting is Ricky Martin as Che. Moving away from the original production’s clear allusions to Che Guevara, he appears here as an enigmatic peasant worker who serves as the bio-musical’s narrator and its voice of skepticism, seeing the beatified “Santa Evita” for the ravenous spotlight-seeker she really is. His dramatic presence could be more aggressive, but Martin’s Latin-pop vocals are a smooth fit for the role, and his relaxed charm and dreamboat looks will yield few complaints. Fans eager for him to bust some serious dance moves have to wait until midway through Act II, but he eventually turns on the trademark sizzle.
The real star, however, is Grandage, who brings his own stamp to a show forever associated with stagecraft supremo Harold Prince. No director can entirely correct the imbalance of Evita. The first act is dynamite – who doesn’t love a ruthless, low-class tart screwing her way to the top and getting an expensive makeover? But the second act deflates as Eva remains more of an emblem than a dissection of fame and power. That said, Grandage’s driving staging could hardly be more impressive.
From designer Christopher Oram’s stately sets and superb 1930s and ‘40s costumes to Neil Austin’s celestial lighting, this is a ravishing spectacle. Oram conjures the architectural splendor of the Argentine capital with a three-sided balconied upper level backed by towering French doors. Below is a colonnade broken by archways through which los descamisados, the wealthy elite and the military all come and go. The use of space is ingenious and the staging both regimented and sinuously fluid.
Ashford’s dance numbers pack tremendous excitement, with their endless variations on the sexy, dangerous moves of the tango, while Lloyd Webber and David Cullen’s new orchestrations enhance the score’s Latin flavors.
Grandage’s brisk storytelling in the first act is especially exhilarating. In “Good Night and Thank You,” Eva works her way from Magaldi (Max von Essen), the tango singer who is her ticket out of the sticks, through a string of lovers as she scrambles up the ladder. In “The Art of the Possible,” officers compete for rank in a power tango in which Eva’s future husband, Juan Perón (Michael Cerveris), is the last man standing. And in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” Eva takes the upper hand in seducing Perón and then swiftly dispatches his mistress (Rachel Potter, whose crystalline vocals make lovely work of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”). In place of the onerous exposition that often encumbers historical stage drama, the sung-through narrative here maintains a rhythmic pulse.
While sticking to the iconic template of Eva’s presentation to the public at the Casa Rosada, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” works as more than just a triumphant visual thanks to Roger’s interpretive skill. With subtle strokes she defies anyone to point up the contradictions of the resplendent newly installed First Lady – economically ruinous wife of a dictator on one hand and maternal champion of the poor on the other.
But the mixed message eventually weighs on a show that fails to dig beneath the surface of its impassioned protagonist. It loses momentum even before she starts succumbing to cancer, leaving time to ponder some of Rice’s more regrettable lyrics. “Rainbow High” is a howler, with such rhyme crimes as “They need to adore me/So Christian Dior me” or “It’s vital you sell me/So Machiavell me.” What does that even mean?
Lloyd Webber’s music also slips into repeat mode. And while it’s a sweet song, written for the moribund Madonna movie, “You Must Love Me” seems shoehorned in, further slowing things down.
Still, Grandage’s vigorous direction and the vitality of the performances more than compensate for the unevenness of the material. Cerveris (a haunting Sweeney Todd in the last Broadway revival) is as commanding as the second-fiddle role allows, despite being slapped with a wig that makes him look like Udo Kier; and von Essen lends sorrowful yearning to thankless Magaldi, crooning “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” with gusto.
But this is Eva’s show, and Roger holds it firmly in her tenacious grip. Even in death, she’s a blazing force of nature. Evita might ultimately lack the complexity to fully explore its title character, but the performer makes no mystery of how this calculating woman could have inspired both fierce opposition and fanatical devotion.