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A CurtainUp Review
By Jon Magaril
Bradley King's set is dominated by a set of wooden biers overflowing with white flowers. The pallets rise and fall to form a memorial, of a funereal or celebratory sort depending on the configuration. At first, they fill the stage floor. Pfeiffer's Eva is introduced stepping over them, while the ensemble mourns her passing. Wearing only a slip, the statuesque young woman moves gingerly towards us like a disoriented soul, apparently trying to understand not only where she is, but, as Jason Gotay's everyman Che lambasts her, who she is.
With that evocative opening, Cannold cannily invites us into Eva's perspective. She attempts to build on that by splitting the role in two. Maia Reficco plays the "not very much more than a child" fifteen-year-old Eva Duarte, who takes primary focus just long enough to use a one-night-stand with visiting crooner Augustine Magaldi (a pitch perfect Philip Hernandez) to make it out of the sticks. The gloriously ambitious "Buenos Aires," perhaps the most complex number in the Webber and Rice oeuvre, introduces Eva to Argentina's capital and its hierarchy of military and moneyed might to us.
Reficco can barely handle the number's incoming traffic of speedy lyrics and dancing ensemble members. But Cannold wants to show us an Eva who's gotten a bit more than she bargained for so needs a steelier version of herself to survive. Enter Pfeiffer's Eva, who seems a foot taller than her young counterpart and more than able to fend off the onslaught of men who'd just been tossing her around. In this era of multiple actors playing a female icon, Cannold applies more revelatory meaning to the divided selves than the directors of the recent Summer and The Cher Show. Once Rificco has been aged out she pops up periodically to haunt her adult self.
Adding a second Eva boosts the pop-flavored "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Eva and the rising politician Juan Peron ( a solid Enrique Acevedo) have just met and quickly declared themselves mutually beneficial to each other, so the previous Peron's Latest Flame (Maria Cristina Slye) finds herself tossed out into that hall by Eva. The number has usually played as a mid-act palate cleanser, breaking from the otherwise in-your-face desires of the center stage diva and Che's passionate interrogation of her. But the narrative flame in earlier productions has threatened to go out.
In the film, Madonna's Eva claimed the potentially desultory number for herself as a way to explore the physical and emotional degradations Eva, and it seemed Madonna herself, faced as she struggled to find a toehold in the big city. Indeed, that film's softer version of Evita is in line with much of this production. Here, while Slye sets up the wounded heart of the song, the harmonies aren't supplied by Che and other men, as in the original, but Pfeiffer and a returning Reficco. Cannold finds in the number an incisive way for us to understand Eva's conflicting ambition and empathy. Reficco's very presence throbs with the latter and allows us to see what Eva risks by climbing over all obstacles, human and otherwise: her own beating heart.
The focus on Eva's inner life comes with a major deficit. It pushes Che to the sidelines literally and figuratively. Whether revolutionary or everyman, he seems closely aligned to Rice's own perspective. Cannold, though, demonstrates little interest in the character. Vietti dresses him in basic black with little to ground him as peasant, revolutionary, or anything in particular. This goes partway to a vision of Che as another shadow of Eva, the ideologue side of her who wants to "screw the middle class," as young Eva declares to Migaldi. Just as Reficco wanders the stage as Eva's endangered heart, Gotay could have been a constant prod to her moral conscience.
Gotay sings the rangy score with a supple flexibility. Unlike the similarly well-sung performance of Ricky Martin. Gotay doesn't betray an inability to dig any deeper into the idealism, rage, and righteousness Mandy Patinkin and Raul Esparza brought to the original and 20th anniversary tour, respectively. But Cannold ignores Prince's original staging of Che being beaten up by Peron's henchmen and other opportunities to have Che go beyond a smirky, jaundiced take on the Perons. Without a discernible change in his attitude or circumstance, he wears out his welcome.
The original staging gleaned tremendous energy from the Brechtian conceit of politics as show business and Evita as a "prima donna" actress. Cannold instead goes only so far as to explore Evita's Dior gown, which floats above center stage as the audience enters. Evita's costume, at the start, finish, and points in between, is that off-white slip, signaling vulnerability, sexuality, and a yearning figure ready to try on and be taken down for embodying the roles of princess and "puta," which Cannold has scrawled on the remnants of that gown as the once-adoring mob has its eventual way with it.
Without the vivifying spectacle of an Eva belting to the back wall in order to rally us to her and Peron's side, and a passionate Che to convince us of the righteousness of his cause, the production intrigues and impresses but doesn't wow. The same goes for Pfeiffer, who exhibits "star quality" and capacious talent. Her Eliza in the first San Francisco and Los Angeles Hamilton runs matched Philippa Soo's lovely original performance. Here, she's a perfect match for Cannold's more internal, plangent vision. We may not submit as LuPone demanded we do forty years ago. But we are left hungering for what Pfeiffer does next.
Prince may have taken his staging inspirations from Rice's scenes of rallies and press conferences. Cannold takes hers from the introspective "Lament," depicting Eva's last moments of life. Reficco makes a final, moving appearance to evoke the sacrifices Eva made and the self-awareness she may have ultimately achieved. By working backwards from there, the piece makes its own sacrifices to honor thoughtfulness over thrills.
As Che sings during Evita's rocky Rainbow Tour, does EVITA "win through? But the answer is yes. And no. And yes."
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Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Co-Choreographed by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff
Music Director Kristen Blodgette
Directed by Sammi Cannold
Cast: Enrique Acevedo, Jason Gotay, Philip Hernandez, Solea Pfeiffer, Maia Reficco, and Maria Cristina Slye
With Sergio Martin Almiron, Fabio Angelo, Isa Antonetti, Leah Barsky, Kristina Bermudez, Edgar Cavazos, Alexander Gil Cruz, Colin Cunliffe, Rebecca Eichenberger, Jennifer Florentino, Tessa Noelle Frascogna, David Michael Garry, Rebecca Hargrove, Mariano Logiudice, Robin Masella, Bronson Norris Murphy, Phoebe Garcia Pearl, Guillermina Quiroga, Lucas Thompson, Daniel Torres, and Ricardo A. Zayas
Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood
Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Sound Design: Kai Harada
Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard
Running Time: Two hours fifteen minutes plus intermission
Runs through November 24, 2019 at NY City Center 131 W 55th St www.nycitycenter.org
Reviewed by Jon Magaril at the September 16 evening performance
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