Friday, April 6, 2012

Just a Little Touch of Star Quality

Review: Evita

Elena Roger and the company perform "Buenos Aires"

There is something refreshingly old school about the current Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita.  While the physical production is lavish and clearly expensive, it doesn’t rely on technological wizardry the way so many shows do these days, instead letting sheer scale provide the show’s “wow” factor.  And while one particular voice is clearly straining under the demands of Webber’s through-composed work, for the most part this Evita is thrillingly sung by traditional Broadway voices, which provides a welcome change from the American Idol wannabes that populate far too many shows these days.
Now, before going any further, I have a confession to make: I have never seen Evita, not even the relatively recent film version featuring Madonna.  As someone viewing the show with fresh eyes, I could not help but notice some of the flaws in its writing, which at this point are pretty much set in stone but worth mentioning anyway.  As in most of his shows, Webber has taken an interesting set of characters and vastly underwritten them, forcing the performers to supply most of the nuance and inner logic needed to carry a show.  There are also some truly atrocious lyrics by Tim Rice, and the pair really should have contracted a librettist to help them flesh out the story in a more coherent fashion.
All of that aside, the story of Eva Peron’s rise to power as Argentina’s First Lady, where she was simultaneously loved and hated by vast segments of the population, makes for fascinating theatre.  The score is also one of Webber’s strongest, being cleverer about recycling melodic themes and less reliant on sappy pop ballads than his later works.  And I’m happy to say that the current revival, based on the recent West End production helmed by Michael Grandage, is a deftly handled rendition of this touchstone of the musical theatre.
The original Evita launched the careers of both Elaine Page and Patti LuPone, leaving any actress tackling the role of Eva Peron with enormous shoes to fill.  Argentine actress Elena Roger, reprising her work from London’s West End, doesn’t wholly succeed in filling them, despite having some truly stunning moments over the course of the evening.  In what is surely a change from the aforementioned leading ladies, Roger is actually at her best during the show’s more intimate moments; her scenes with Michael Cerveris’ Juan Peron are absolutely lovely, revealing a tender vulnerability behind Eva’s fiery exterior.
Unfortunately, Roger doesn’t always convincingly display said exterior, and her interpretation of the role lacks the outsized diva moments that have come to define both the role and the show.  It has to be said that her voice isn’t up to the demands of the score, although any woman will tell you that Webber has written one of the most vocally taxing roles in the musical theatre cannon.  The high, sustained belting proves troublesome for Roger, who sometimes nails it (“A New Argentina”) and sometimes can’t quite reach the money notes (“Buenos Aires”).  She also has trouble summoning the almost supernatural passion the role requires, since as written Eva is truly larger than life.  But Roger is clearly a talent to be reckoned with, and in a role more suited to her voice would be nigh unstoppable.
Another key cast member who doesn’t quite live up to his Broadway predecessor is Ricky Martin as Che, the role which won the incomparable Mandy Patinkin a Tony Award back in 1980.  Like Roger, Martin is perfectly fine in his own right.  He sings beautifully, is always convincing and committed to his role, and his supermodel good looks certainly don’t hurt.  But anyone who has seen Patinkin perform “Oh What a Circus” knows what the song and the role could be, and unfair comparison or not Martin doesn’t meet that high standard.
The rest of the principal cast all offers fine work.  Tony winner Michael Cerveris is very good as Peron, to the point where you wish the character wasn’t so direly underdeveloped.  Max von Essen does fine work as Magaldi, “the first man to be of use to Eva Peron,” and relative newcomer Rachel Potter is divine as the Peron’s jilted Mistress.
It is impossible to overstate the contributions director Michael Grandage, recreating his work from the London production, has made to this revival  His effortless juggling of actors and set pieces has created a work so fluid that it flies by, and his direction brings a much needed clarity to the work that is not always supplied by the writing.  Grandage’s partner in crime is choreographer Rob Ashford, who has created some truly stunning dance sequences, most notable during “Buenos Aires.”  Ashford reuses some tango steps a few times too many, but this is easily the most restrained and inventive work he has created for a Broadway stage in years.
This Evita isn’t going to erase memories of the original or its Tony winning stars, but it is a first rate production for a new generation of musical theatre aficionados.  The strong cast and even stronger direction combine with one of Lloyd Webber’s better (though still flawed) works to produce an excellent night in the theatre.  The show is already shaping up to be one of the “event” shows of the spring, and those curious to see what all the fuss is about will find plenty to love.

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