A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Don't cry for stars and stagings of Evitas from years past
The truth is this revival is powerfully staged and cast.
Baron Lloyd-Webber has certainly lorded it over his colleagues in the musical theater world when it comes to hit making. The chandelier dropping Phantom of the Opera still has ticket holders snaking around the block after more than twenty years. Now two of his collaborations with lyricist Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita are back on Broadway. While I'm not a fan of the former, I love the lushness of the Evita score. And even though the story is hardly a 100% accurate or fully detailed there's something about the soap-operatic grandeur of the story that's as irresistible as a good beach read or a mini series like Downton Abbey.
The new Evita — and all of you who are old enough to have seen Harold Prince's 1979 production, even those who like my friend whose job at an international corporation involved taking visiting clients to Evita about a dozen times, this is very much a new and quite wonderful Evita. British director Michael Grandage has fully exploited this sung-through musical's operatic grandeur. No minimal set for him but a lavishly designed and lit affair that would be right at home in an opera house. Somehow Christopher Oram's grand design fills in the sketchy bio-drama with shadings that make for a fuller picture of the power hungry, dictatorial undercurrents in this story of a less than pure Cinderella and the equally flawed Prince at whose side she will become a national icon.
Enriching Oram's stunning stage pictures and true to the period costumes is Neil Austin's spectacular, mood and narrative enhancing lighting. This is evident the minute the curtain emblazoned with giant images of the production's power couple, Eva and Juan Peron (Michael Cerveris) rises. on the opening scene, the funeral for Eva who has just succumbed to cancer at thirty-three. At the top half of the stage we see projectionist Zachary Borovay's video footage of the actual funeral procession. Below the Ensemble sings "Requiem" bathed in a grissaile pallette that makes the filmed and live people look all of a piece. Stagecraft doesn't get much better than this
The tunes that have embedded themselves in the ears even of those who know them only through the film starring Madonna or on cast album and other CD's are still there. It's a melody rich as ever score, that makes it easy to forgive some of Tim Rice's more awkward lyrics. What's more this isn't just another one big, much reprised show stopper score. Besides, the most famous aria, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," there are challenging solo and ensemble turns like "On the Night of a Thousand Stars," "Buenos Aires," "The Art of the Possible," and " Another Suitcase in Another Hall."To add to what's new this time around, Lloyd Webber and David Cullen have updated Latin-flavored orchestrations of which Rob Ashford takes full advantaged with sizzling choreography that includes pas de deux and ensemble tangos, exotic waltzes foot-stomping generals.
The heavy infusion of the Latin flavored dancing is especially apt since this production's Eva Peron is an Argentinian and a seasoned dancer. To get the inevitable comparisons to the original Broadway Eva out of the way. It was Patti LuPone, the American dynamo who belted her way to stardom in this role and, together with Mandi Patinkin as Che (also a star making role) turned the not all that favorably received show into a hit. LuPone has the lustier pipes, but Roger, all fleet footed five feet of her, also delivers a fierce and feisty Eva. If her voice tends to turn shrill at times, that goes with the richly nuanced persona she creates. Like Lupone, Roger isn't a great beauty but a great talent. To see her in this Evita is to understand why this production has made her a star when this production had a run at London's Donmar Warehouse, as it did the original Eva, a star.
Since Roger is an unknown to American audiences and the Marquis is big theater, the role of the commentator has not only been changed but cast with big box office magnet performer. The change: This character was originally modeled after the beret wearing, cigar smoking, charismatic Revolutionary, Che Guevara who really had nothing to do with the Perons and was just a conceit to add a piquant edge to the story. Now he's just Che, a troubadour-narrator who stands a bit aside from the Evita smitten crowd. That brings us to the big star attraction, Spanish pop star Ricky Martin. The more anonymous, first name only Everyman works well for the tall, dark and handsome Martin. He sings well and what he lacks in edge he more than makes up for with relaxed stage presence and charm.
Much as I liked Roger, and Martin, if I were pressed to choose one of the above the title names for the Best Actor in a Musical Revival , it would be Michael Cerveris as the usually less talked about Juan Peron (In case you forgot, it was Bob Gunton back in 1979). The always superb singer-actor is in splendid voice and energizes the entire stage whenever he appears.
Also excellent additions to this American cast is Max Von Essen as Magaldi who was the first of the beds that represented the steps on Eva Duarte's climb to love, wealth, power and fame. Rachel Potter makes a strong impression as the Peron mistress Eva ousts. It's bad news for the character, but leads to Potter's lovely solo of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall."
Mr. Grandage's direction fluidly moves from the opening funeral scene backwards to the flashback from the opening funeral back to Eva's home town where she hooks up Magaldi and then on to an amusing scene that shows her dispatching one lover after another. The entry of Peron in her life and on the national scene is beautifully illustrated with "The Art of the Possible" and a stunning ritualistic dance that shows Peron getting rid of his opposition with a group of foot stomping colonels. This fluidity of sung and danced through story telling continues right through to the Peron wedding ceremony, her touching wheelchair scene and final "Lament."
People not hung up on comparisons with Patti and Mandi comparisons will probably be most enthralled with this fine, fresh take on the thirty-year-old show. But those who leave their tendency to compare and nitpick at home, will be grateful to Michael Grandage for not sticking slavishly to the old, and letting his own vision give theatergoers the best of the old and a timely and well worth seeing something new.
For Lizzie Loveridge's review of the 2006 Donmar Warehouse production go here.
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