There’s a lyric three quarters of the way through Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s poperetta, Evita, after a group of ardent supporters’ adulation of their goddess incarnate begins to wane: “Would Evita win through? And the answer is yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. And no.”
It’s a lyric that very much encapsulates the experience of viewing the musical’s current Broadway revival, starring Latino pop divo Ricky Martin (who despite being a relative B-lister is still apparently able to attract megabucks at the box office) and Argentinian actress Elena Roger, who played first lady of Argentina Eva Peron in a 2006 revival in London’s West End, also helmed by Michael Grandage (famous for his work at the Donmar Warehouse), who repeats his duties here.
Most notable to fans flocking to this production is the fact that Martin’s highest-profile Broadway role to date (he cut his teeth in Les Miserables fifteen-plus years ago as Marius) is a qualified success, characterized by fine singing, skilled dancing, and an altogether affable presence. Though original director Hal Prince had fashioned Rice and Lloyd Webber’s faux-generic “Che” character as the rebel Che Guevera himself, replete with mussed-up fatigues and beard and Mandy Patinkin’s rough-around-the-edges charm, for this production the character has been reconceived, rather tepidly, as an “Everyman” (read: neatly-coifed pop star, with Urban Outfitters white-thermal-and-suspenders costumes and seventies porn star moustache).
No matter, Martin’s charm wins out in the end in spite of this minor misstep from designer Christopher Oram (more, and better, things to say about Oram, who designed both costumes and sets, later). At the heart of any revival of Evita is – well, Eva “Evita” Peron. And here’s where the feelings of ambiguity truly come into play. While Elena Roger nails the emotional highs and lows of the character for the most part, the incontrovertible fact is that she’s vocally lacking, both in terms of power and enunciation.
She’s an exceptional dancer with a lithe, birdlike presence, but when her belting during the show’s early showstopper, “Buenos Aires,” careens toward the song’s bridge (“And if ever I go too far…”), she’s unable to take flight vocally, reverting into a breathy head voice that no Broadway Eva should need. Sure, she’s able to chart Eva’s journey plausibly and infuses the role with an Argentinian authenticity that (perhaps superficially) impresses, but at top-dollar Broadway prices audiences deserve a vocal powerhouse performance that’s sorely lacking here, the absence of which bumps this production down a notch from must-see to if-you-feel-like-it-on-a-rainy-Saturday.
To be fair, whomever’s taking on the role of Eva has also to confront a flawed text. Central to the weaknesses of Evita is the tendency of its creators to alternately praise and deride their heroine without ever forming a convincing conclusion about her. It’s all hypothesis, no synthesis. Fair and biased it may be, but it’s an unsteady piece of theatre as a result – too doubting to fall into the category of homage, too adoring to truly mine the depths of Eva’s flaws. As often as the piece seems to dig its teeth into it’s subject’s ambiguities (“Goodnight and Thank You,” “The Art of the Possible,” “Rainbow Tour,” “And the Money Kept Rolling In”), the character of Eva ultimately emerges as a flimsy cardboard tragic hero, a saintly victim of circumstance.
In adoring, or at least sympathetic, numbers like “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” “High Flying, Adored,” “Rainbow High,” “Eva’s Final Broadcast,” and – most notable for its eleven-o’clock attempts at counteracting any lingering doubts of Eva’s character – “Lament,” Eva ultimately emerges as an admirable figure, “a cross between a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint,” but someone whose zeigeist Rice and Lloyd Webber are able to mimic without ever quite pinpointing in exact, character-defining detail.
“Remember, I was very young then,” Eva reminds us in “Lament,” as if to excuse her collusion in the rather shady dealings of her husband, Juan Peron, whose ability to silence his opponents has been well-documented. Then, as her final moments onstage approach: “How I lived, how I shone, but how soon the lights were gone,” a final example of the “poor Eva” mindset to which the musical ultimately resigns itself. It’s a flawed portrait to be sure.
Whatever the flaws of the material, this new revival is not without its formidable strengths. Michael Cerveris (wigged here), shines in the sorely underwritten role of Eva’s husband, Juan Peron. Rachel Potter makes the most of her one number, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” which, in performance sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of its uselessness within the plot of the show, and Max von Essen as sleazy-sexy Magaldi embodies the role of tango singer well.
Director Michael Grandage has done his best with Roger and the rest of the cast. If he was instrumental in his leading lady’s casting, he deserves a measure of chastisement, but he’s nevertheless made sure that Ms. Roger navigates the prickly path from nobody to minor actress to political powerhouse with savvy self-assuredness, emphasizing the role of fate in her rise to power, particularly in the quiet moments between Eva and her husband on the eve of their ascension.
Grandage adds the expected level of Donmar Warehouse grandiosity to the proceedings, assisted by his frequent collaborator Christopher Oram, whose sets are gorgeous and palatial, all terraces and shining public squares (even if his costumes are sometimes too suitably drab, as aforementioned). The show’s energetic Latin-flavored choreography is by Rob Ashford, whose contributions excite throughout, particularly during “The Art of the Possible,” one of the show’s most plodding musical numbers, which Ashford somehow manages to elevate to must-watch, last-man-standing relevance by injecting his own unique style and energy.
“Waltz for Che and Evita,” featuring a sultry tango between our two stars, who fling themselves at one another as much in attraction as repulsion (and thrillingly so), is a production highlight – a moment during which dance, direction, writing, and acting enmesh to reveal the perfect representation of what the show (and this production) could have been – a dramatic clash between the poor and the powerful told, thrilling and cohesively, through dance and music.
After all, what endures about Evita is its top-shelf score. As with Jesus Christ Superstar, also currently on view on Broadway in a major (and more consistent) revival, this is pre-slump Lloyd Webber, pulsing with energy at its most lively (as in “Buenos Aires”) and wrenching hold of an audience’s gut during its quieter moments, particularly during the second act, which features the show’s most popular number, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”
As interpreted by Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige, the role’s originators on Broadway and in the West End respectively (and whose performances we can only now experience on disc), the song is a musically rich entreaty to the people of Argentina – but more importantly a moment for the actress playing Eva to win us over. Here, we get a decent rendition – not so much bad as infused with a “who cares” musical mediocrity to which this production, and its central performance, too often succumbs. This Evita never quite wins through, and it’s a shame, because she’s surrounded by plenty of peripheral promise.