Not long ago I became one of the last living humans to see the smash hit musical Wicked for the first time and I wrote about how pleasantly surprised I was by its delights. I had the opposite experience last night, opening night for another multi-Tony-winning blast from the past, Evita. Let’s just say that back in the day (the early '80s), I was a bit obsessed with that show – OK, I saw it seven times (last night being the eighth). I was working in LA at the time, near the (now-defunct) Shubert Theatre, where the show had a two-year marathon run, and after work, I often ran over to the theater and bought a single last-minute seat, then sat and sang along under my breath with what I then deemed to be the greatest musical ever to have hit the stage. I saw the amazing Loni Ackerman as Evita there; I saw the originator of the role, Patti LuPone, in her stunning, Tony-winning performance on Broadway; I saw the show in London; I saw it again back in LA. So I can say with confidence that there is no nook or cranny of Evita, the rock opera that tells the story of the rise and fall of the charismatic wife of the president of Argentina in the mid-20th century, that I am not familiar with.
While there have been numerous professional productions of Evita over the years, 2012 marked the first Broadway revival in 30 years of the iconic show, and it is the touring production of that version that opened last night at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Re-orchestrated and staged to reflect a more “authentic” Argentinian vibe, the touring production is a mixed bag of fresh delights and missed opportunities.
Any actress who plays Eva Peron, the political celebrity who, along with her husband Juan, ruled Argentina with an iron fist from 1945 until her death in 1952 (Juan went on to hold power until 1955), must dread the comparison between her and Patti LuPone, whose Tony-winning powerhouse of a performance remains stamped on the character to this day. Caroline Bowman acquits herself well in this regard, playing Evita less as bulldozing spitfire and more as slinky seductress, thus emphasizing the sexual hold she had on Peron. This is a far more seductive Eva than the one in the original production, and it brings out a welcome erotic tension in the show. Bowman is lithe and beautiful, and she is clearly an effective actress, moving Eva with believable fluidity from brief stint as a 15-year-old to a wreck of a woman dying of cancer at 33. Her voice is powerful in the lower registers, but lacks the dynamism in the upper notes so important for the role, so that in numbers like the anthem “A New Argentina” that ends act one, she sounds more like a Disney princess than an ambitious demagogue.
The actor playing Che, the voice of the common man and a sort of hapless conscience for Eva, may find himself compared to Mandy Patinkin, who originated the role and also won a Tony for it, but Josh Young has nothing to worry about. His strong and supple voice and considerable stage presence brought Che alive – feeling much more like the Everyman composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice conceived of him as, rather than a version of Che Guevara as he was morphed into in the original Broadway production. Young is riveting on stage and I’m sure we will be hearing more of him in the future.
Similarly, Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron is excellent. With a rich baritone that could stand its ground in any classic opera, MacLaughlin captured Peron’s mixture of cruelty, deviousness, allure, and doofus-ness in a complex and understated performance.
Evita is more than just a star turn for three amazing performers. The original production featured dance numbers and staging that matched the intensity and variety of the performances, with the actress playing Eva doing as much physical as vocal work, and dances that both furthered the plot and evoked the unrelenting march toward power and glory that was the life of Eva Peron. Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford have de-emphasized the dancing in favor of more realistic musical numbers in which characters stamp their feet or hands or gesture in lieu of dancing their frustrations and desires. This is in keeping with the generally more realistic approach of this production, but it sacrifices a good deal of the intensity that was in the original. As a result, Eva’s rise to power feels a little lackluster, her ambition a bit generic. This is particularly evident in a number that doesn’t even feature her, “Peron’s Latest Flame.” In this song, the military and the aristocracy bemoan the fact that “tarts have become the set to know,” now that Eva Peron has so much influence in Argentina. The counterpoint between the two groups was originally punctuated by a hilarious marching dance on the part of the officers and a kind of moving tableau on the part of the aristocracy, which played up the viciousness of the factions in the country that helped rip it apart during the time of Peron. Grandage has replaced the ironic dance with a more realistically rendered cafe scene in which the characters clatter their chairs and look angry, but don’t coalesce into a caterwauling chorus, and the results are rather tepid. In place of the intense dances choreographer Ashford has the ensemble and the stars repeatedly dance a tame tango, another reference to “authentic” Argentina. Perhaps this was for the best, as the dancing on the part of the ensemble as well as the principals was lackluster at best.
Other moments re-imagined improve on the original, as when Eva and Juan’s wedding is depicted on the wave of Peronist popularity represented in the aforementioned “A New Argentina,” and the final tableau in which Evita appears as a ghost on the balcony of the Casa Rosada where she had her first triumphant emergence after Peron’s election to the presidency.
If you have never seen Evita before, this production should draw you in with its high production values and good-to-great performances. Seven times? Maybe not. Once, though, is definitely worth it.
Evita plays at the Segerstrom Center
for the Arts through December 22.