EVITA Becomes A Modern Day Classic

1378749298_stretchEVITA Fun Fact:  The original lyrics to Don’t Cry For Me Argentina were  “It’s only your lover returning, the truth is I never left you.” 

While watching opening night’s spectacular new national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, it really hit me about a quarter of the way through the production of what a modern classic this revolutionary musical has become.

I must put it out there that Evita was in fact the first Broadway show I ever saw, begging my parents to take me to the Big Apple after I saw Patti LuPone perform Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and Rainbow High on the Merv Griffin show.  Some things stick in your collective memory, and for me no other show has done that but for Evita.  Almost forty years have passed since then, and though as a production, things have changed, Evita still packs an emotional wallop.

Evita, of course is the opera of the life of Eva Peron, who became a one of the most powerful women in the world as the First Lady of Argentina.  Her controversial life begins with her State funeral then shits to her life story from poor illegitimate country girl growing up in the small town of Junin to sleeping her way to top of food chain, marrying Juan Peron and becoming the people’s First Lady, only to die of cancer at the age of thirty two.  She represented the poor of the country and shifted the economic demographic by very questionable means, almost bankrupting the country.  To this day Argentina s still divided on the Peron legacy.  Is she a Saint, a power hungry whore, or something in-between?

What is currently on stage at the Oriental Theatre is director Michael Grandage’s 2006 British revival which abandons Hal Prince’s Brechtian vision.   The key draw of the production was the casting of Elena Roger who was the first Argentinian to play the role.   Ms. Roger was a commanding presence who became a box office draw to boot.  That cannot be said when the production came to Broadway in 2012.  Instead it became a vehicle for Ricky Martin who, though he sold out every week he was in the production, shifted the focus away from the title character to that of Che (now an Everyman as in the film version and not the revolutionary Che Guevara from the original).  Though Ms. Roger reprised her role, her voice clearly was damaged from the London run.

1378655143_stretchThankfully for the tour there is no star power casting and Evita does not need it.  Put Evita on a marquee and your box office will be happy.  Director Grandage’s vision is quite a different take than Mr. Prince’s and we know this right from the start.  Grandage has opted to cut the Cinema in Buenos Aires scene where we once saw patrons watching an old film of actress Eva which is then abruptly stopped as her death is announced, and then Requiem For Evita ensues.

Now, we hear only the death announcement, with the main stage curtain closed, which then opens and goes right into the Requiem with only film footage of the actual funeral.  The show now really begins with entrance of Che (Josh Young) and his take on what he has seen happen to the country he grew up in (Oh, What A Circus).     The musical then shifts to Eva’s  rise and fall (Caroline Bowman) beginning in Junin where as teenager she meets a tango singer, Augustin Magaldi (Christopher Johnstone) who becomes the first of many to be cunningly used as she climbs the social ladder.  It is at a charity concert that she meets Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin) and her rise to political icon is fulfilled.

As Eva, Ms. Bowman seems to be still trying to discover how she wants to play the role.  Though she can vocally handle the insanely complex score there, is never a sense of foreboding or domination.  In other words, she needs to crank up the bitchiness.  As this is only her first month in the role, I will eager to see her again in a few months when she becomes more aligned with with complexities of the role.  For an actress playing this role, the impedes for Eva’s want of power comes from some her opening lines as a teenager when she tells Magaldi

“My Father’s other family was middle class and we were kept out site hidden from view at his funeral.  If these are the people of Buenos Aires I welcome the chance to shine and their city and to trample their rotten values into the ground!”

 Ms. Bowman shines is in the second act, where from the Waltz to her Lament, she is a force of nature on that stage.  The addition of the film’s song You Must Love Me is powerful and one the Ms. Bowman takes full advantage of.  (However, in actuality it is something Eva would never acknowledge to her hubby).

The performance that people are talking about, however, is the phenomenal Josh Young (recent Tony Award nominee for Jesus Christ Superstar) as Che.  The change of character from revolutionary to Everyman leaves an actor with some work to do to try to find a connection to the piece (although anything is better than Che being an insecticide salesman as he was in the original concept album).  Mr. Young does so brilliantly.  He weaves in and out of each scene commenting, participating and in the Waltz with Eva and Che, becomes a romantic connection to Eva.  More than that, he is vocally the finest I have witnessed in the role (including Mr. Patinkin).   I have been touting the greatness of this actor since I saw him at Stratford On Avon as Che in Gary Griffin’s production a few years back and his “And The Money Kept Rolling In” is worth a standing ovation on its own.

Though vocally competent, Sean MacLaughlin is too young, and frankly too good looking for Juan Peron.  Moreover, a main issue that exists with Mr. Grandage’s version is that he makes Juan and Eva’s relationship into  real romantic love story.  Such is not the case .  This was a marriage of political necessity, and though there was love int the relationship, it was love of the power that each one gave the other.   Each had their own separate bedrooms and Peron’s affairs are well documented.   It was also under Peron’s orders that he began having his wife’s body embalmed before she was dead.   That angle of mutual use of the other is missed.

The biggest overall issue with Mr. Gradnage’s version is that it inherently lacks conflict.  For Evita to fire on all pistons we need to feel the conflict and tension between the aristocracy and the descamisados; between the military and the factions that are at their heels; between Eva and Peron; between Eva and the oligarchs; and most of all between Eva and herself which gives rise to her lamenting her short life.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has retooled his score a bit, especially through the orchestrations which are more period appropriate (though not necessarily better).  For this Chicago outing, the orchestra in the pit was sensational with some of the best trumpeting I have ever heard.   Also gone is Larry Fuller’s choreography, which artfully pitted the middle class against the military and aristocracy.  Choreographer Rob Ashford’s staging is tango infused which though initially engaging, gets a bit overused midpoint though the production.    Christopher Oram’s luscious set, beautifully lit by Neil Austin gives the show an authentic architectural feel making the balcony scene a visual triumph.

What was also refreshing to see was the audience in attendance.  There was a cross-generation with a teens and twenty somethings in attendance, and actually knowing the score.  That ensures that this musical will live on as long as the actual Evita’s legacy.  In fact the two have become ingrained together.   Long live Evita!

Evita runs through October 6, 2013 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago.  For more information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.  For calendar information please visit TheatreInChicago.com