Andrew Lloyd Webber is returning with a vengeance. His Phantom of the Opera sizzles along in its 25th profitable year at the Majestic, his revived Jesus Christ Superstar set up shop at the Neil Simon on March 16, and the London transported revival of Evita just opened at the Marquis, all on Broadway.
Once upon a time, in the dim distant 1990s, the word was that Lloyd Webber was washed up after the failure of Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, Jeeves, Bombay Dreams (which he produced), Beautiful Game and The Woman In White to drum up any interest on Broadway. His new original musical, Love Never Dies, found some die hard fans in London, and it may still brave the Atlantic crossing, but nothing is set.
However, with the combination of Lord Lloyd Webber’s entrepreneurial skills and his boundless ambition, he’s back in the limelight conducting interviews internationally, and keeping a watchful eye on his early successes so that he can have the rare treat of reveling in them all over again.
Evita is something of an anomaly. It tackles the rise and fall of Eva Peron, the power behind President Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina in the 1940s, during which her great favor with the ‘descamisados’ (“the shirtless ones,” the working poor) kept her spouse in power, and kept her in the finest of everything. She traveled the world as ambassador for the Peron Argentina, much as Jaqueline Kennedy, using very different traits and talents, brought glamour and attention to her husband’s “Camelot” era.
Webber has always been attracted to large themes. He writes with a marking pen, not with a fine ball point. He reveres the sweep of grand opera and indeed in Evita he uses no book at all, merely “lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.” There are requiems and anthems and the soaring theme of the evening, “Don’t Cry for me,Argentina”. There is Che (Guevara?) as narrator and guide, who supplies us with the plot, all in highly melodic and often amusingly worded songs.
It’s a simple story, when stripped of its pomp; the tale of Eva Duarte, a small time actress with little education, who has a clear vision of where she wants to go and few options on how to get there. She uses her curvaceous body and her clever and manipulative mind to climb the political ladder, man by unsuspecting man, until she’s reached the top rung for women at the time, the role of Wife to the President. The musical covers the momentous moments in her life from her death from uterine cancer in 1952 at 33, via flashback to when she was 16 and just beginning her journey.
Webber had found success in the music business by recording Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph as concept albums, so that was his approach to the Evita material as well. With the music and lyrics on vinyl, he approached one of the world’s most successful musical theatre directors, American Hal Prince, and when Prince agreed to help shape it into a theatre piece, he was well on his way. But think how wise he was. It was (correctly) thought at the time that Americans understood what made musicals work better than anyone, having invented the form. There were gifted British writers, but few inventive British directors for musicals, and the big hits on the West End were usually from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Schwartz and Dietz and their colleagues, under the direction of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, George Abbott or — Hal Prince. The odd Oliver! or The Boy Friend would reverse the trend now and then, but clearly it was a good move to add Mr. Prince to the Evita team of creators.
The score is rich and flavorful, but what turned it into a crowd pleaser that ran for ten years in London and for 1567 performances on Broadway, was the inventive way in which it was staged. Constantly moving, using revolving doors, staircases, balconies, newsreel clips, banners that made the stage surge with life, it was a treat for all the senses. And with Elaine Paige in London and Patti LuPone in New York putting up their larger-than-life central character, the public did not concern itself with the critical carping about the simplistic lyrics and the slightly pretentious music which underscored every moment. The sequence in which Eva rises from lowly worker in Buenos Aires to Important Lady was staged by Hal Prince and choreographer Larry Fuller with a revolving door out of which came a more prominent male figure each time the door completed its turn, thus telling us in fine theatrical style that Eva was moving up. Gorgeous.
In the current production, Michael Grandage as director and Rob Ashford as choreographer have brought fresh ideas to the same material, and have been equally inventive.
Elena Roger, the first Argentine actress to play Evita, is truly an original. Tiny, her figure is proportionately curvy, her voice big and malleable, her acting chops considerable, so her Evita emerges as a fully drawn figure of ambition leading to destruction. She moves beautifully too and even characterizes while dancing.
Grammy winning Ricky Martin is her Che, and he is attractive and comfortable on stage. He sings well, he can move, his acting is ebullient. That he in no way resembles a fiery militant rebel doesn’t seem to bother anyone out front. It didn’t much bother me, but I was constantly aware that he was miscast. I was also constantly aware that he was delightful but would have been even more successful had Che been named Audie Murphy or GI Joe.
Michael Cerveris is always an interesting actor, and he does what can be done with Juan Peron, limited somewhat by the writing that presents him as a strutting peacock whose wild attraction to Eva is constant. He has the voice to carry his big second act description of the “Rainbow Tour” describing Eva’s tremendous success as ambassador.
Christopher Oram’s sets and costumes. aided by Neil Austin’s lighting design, keep us in smoke, fog, rain and beautiful starry night when need be. The romantic “On This Night of 1000 Stars” is thus lifted from tacky to Las Vegas Spectacular Tacky as the number, beautifully sung by Max van Essen, is the musical moment that gives Eva Duarte liftoff.
That entire sequence is theatre at its very best. It entertains, it makes major story points, it delivers clear intention in the acting, and van Essen, later joined by Ms. Roger, lifts the act with it.
Footnote: It’s always good to see George Lee Andrews, after 9,382 performances (!) in Phantom of the Opera, back on Broadway. As I know the man, I followed him as he played several non-speaking roles throughout the evening, and though he is a member of the ensemble, he must be onstage three times as long as he was when he played Monsieur Andre, the opera manager in his record breaking engagement. He changes costumes and wigs at least five times in this one before ending up (quite correctly) dead center stage, just behind the stars for the curtain calls. The director or stage manager who staged the calls clearly realized that though it may say “Ensemble” beside his name in the playbill, Mr. Andrews is just cruising this season, just for fun. If the public responds to this rousing revival as it did in 1988, he may be doing so for quite a while.