Partway through the first act of Evita at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House, there’s a sort of theatrical military coup. Up until then, the production has been handsome and well-sung, if difficult to hear. Enter a posse of uniformed officers who do a mesmerizing tango as they sing the number “The Art of the Possible.” Shortly thereafter, we meet Juan Peron and witness (“I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You”) an engagingly intimate mating dance between him and the ambitious Eva Duarte, whose story the musical relates. At this point, it’s clear that the production is possessed of some memorable moments.
These moments continue in Act Two. Colonel Peron is now President of Argentina and Eva First Lady. As she addresses the country (from her famous balcony), it feels (unexpectedly) as if we are watching not the ultimate triumph of an ambitious and somewhat ruthless climber, but rather the more tentative, more complicated assumption by her of a public persona for which she is not fully prepared. This is accompanied by a related, somewhat delusional, presumption on her part that she represents something more important and deeper than the result of an election or a historical accident.
All of which is to say that the production by the British director Michael Grandage and the U.S. choreographer Rob Ashford (one wants to be careful using the term “American” in the context of a musical about the history of a South American country) seems less interested in the historical pageant aspect of the material and more interested in the psychology of the characters and the implications of its historical themes than the original, celebrated Harold Prince production (with choreography by Larry Fuller). Admittedly, I make this sweeping judgment having never seen that original production.
There’s basically a couple of ways to get to know a musical. The way that makes the best sense, and probably to be recommended, is to see a production, like it or love it, buy the original cast album, and listen to it until you know the lyrics of every song. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes, you get introduced to the musical through hearing the album, liking or loving it, and playing it until you know the lyrics of every song.
That latter path is the one I trod on my road to seeing Evita for the first time the other night. How did I end up seeing the original production of Sweeney Todd twice (seeing the musical an additional three times at Signature and another time in Canada plus the TV version and the movie) and never seeing Evita (not even the movie)? It’s just one of those things.
I can’t help thinking that folks who go the Kennedy Center between now and October 19 will be in better shape if they know the score beforehand. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a new venue and they are still working out the balance between the orchestra and the singers, or if I was sitting in a dead zone, or if, because I know the words, I am not a reliable gauge of how an Evita newbie would follow the text, but a lot of the lyrics were difficult for me to hear. It’s true that there were ripples of laughter at appropriate places. However, I would bet that no-one who doesn’t know the song could tell you what (“Another suitcase in another hall/ Take your picture off another wall”) was being sung behind the lead vocal of the Mistress’ song toward the end of Act One. As consistently impressive as the voices are (and they are, up and down the line), it was too often frustratingly difficult to discern lyrics on opening night.
Closes October 19, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $130
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The production also feels a bit somber and muted at times. Ashford’s choreography, so striking during the sequences mentioned above, seems a bit rote elsewhere (more tango?), and some of the numbers that are infectious highlights of the original cast album (“Buenos Aires”; “And The Money Kept Rolling In”) don’t pop the way you’d hope.
But when the production is good, it is very, very good. And it’s great to see a big Broadway musical these days (even if it is a revival) that’s about something beyond the fun of the music. Seeing Evita in 2014, its themes resonate as you think about how frequently populist impulses have disappointed or become corrupted. It’s the story of a woman who involves herself in an arena dominated by men, and there is also a strange way in which the disdain of our narrator toward the ambitious Eva echoes disturbingly the disdain of those officers who are resentful that a woman might have more influence than they do. (These are all themes explored in greater depth, though, in the currently running Broadway show Jersey Boys.) (I’m kidding, of course.)
It’s a strange piece, Evita. In terms of its narrative and thematic ambition, only the earlier Jesus Christ Superstar rivals it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber oeuvre. Who would expect a musical about Argentinian political figures to run on Broadway for four years, as the original production did? True, it might seem presumptuous for a pair of Brits to tell that history. (And I ran into a friend who is married to an Argentinian the day before I saw the show and heard in no uncertain terms that he feels that way). And the device of having the piece narrated by a young Che Guevara might seem a bizarre and jarring conceit. But for the most part Evita avoids the cringe-inducing tone-deafness that often results when the private thoughts of historical figures are presented dramatically. And the historical details are wildly more reliable than the shallow, manipulative tripe presented as biography in Jersey Boys.
Its long run and its place in the pantheon of mid/late 20th century musicals notwithstanding, Evita is only (as of Thursday) 49th on the list of long-running Broadway shows. Less interesting plays, less memorable scores, less ambitious musicals (you could point to the Gershwin knock-off Crazy for You and the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, not to mention the oft-reviled-by-me Jersey Boys) have run longer. But Evita was influential. TV ads for that original production and the national tours were so ubiquitous that SCTV, the sketch comedy show, parodied them. Although there had been sung-through musicals (such as The Most Happy Fella) before the one-two punch of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, after them the deluge. (Sweeney Todd opened the year before Evita on Broadway, but the score for Evita was around before anyone had an opportunity to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.) The line between Broadway musical and opera has blurred significantly since then.
In fact, like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita began life not in the theatre, but on vinyl, as a concept album. The stage versions of Jesus Christ Superstar, which was called a rock opera, retained the wailing guitars and did not fully adulterate the rock aspect of that original album. The Harold Prince production of Evita, though, pretty much traded the rock vibe for a more traditional Broadway sound, and that’s still what you get with this touring production, which began life in London in 2006 and had a delayed transfer to Broadway (the show’s first revival on the Great White Way) in 2012.
Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice essentially followed the template they had employed on Jesus Christ Superstar. Each focuses on a historical figure (coincidentally, one who died young and at the same age) with each show introducing that character through the eyes of another character (Judas, Che) who is to some degree critical of the title character in an opening number. Whereas Judas, though, has conflicted attitudes toward Christ, Che’s attitude toward Eva doesn’t really evolve at all, which makes for less compelling drama and a less satisfying character. I adore Mandy Patinkin, but a lot of what he does on that original cast recording can best be described as contemptuous snarl. It’s funny that, while Che (is there anyone easier to find on a t-shirt at an open-air market anywhere in the world?) is inarguably a much more important figure than either Eva or Juan Peron, his portrayal in Evita is more indelible than is any other dramatic representation of him, including the recent epic-length Steven Soderbergh films.
Grandage has both Eva and Che emerge from a crowd as the production begins and he seems to want to fight the “great man” theory of history, playing down the strength of personality as a galvanizing factor in the story. Max Quinlan sings the role of Che beautifully, but he could be anybody, an Argentine everyman. He doesn’t really conform to our image of Che, and there isn’t a strong sense of his radicalization or his destiny. But the Che device is the musical’s strangest aspect. Quinlan is following Ricky Martin in the part, who played it on Broadway. The number on that year’s Tony broadcast (someone needs to write an article about the tendency of producers to choose a show’s least appealing number for the Tony show) was like watching a high school production, wherein the personable, charismatic, attractive student who can sing and dance got a lead role even though he is ridiculously wrong for it, but you forgive much more in a high school context than you do at a professional production. Quinlan is a vast improvement on Martin’s oddly cheerful Che, but the production doesn’t bring insight to the (admittedly most confounding) part the way it does to the other leads.
Caroline Bowman (local girl makes good — she’s from the area and got this role fresh from being in the original cast of Kinky Boots) has high kicks to match her high notes, which are always true and clear and to which she brings a lovely softness that makes those distinct from Patti LuPone in her recording of the part. In addition to the delicate work she does in that illuminating sequence at the top of Act Two, the way she and Grandage trace Eva’s decline is unexpectedly compelling and poignant without being cloying or sentimental.
The big revelation of the cast is Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron. He’s another actor with local ties (he has worked at Signature Theatre), and his Peron is younger than the part is usually cast. That gives the Eva-Juan coupling more spark than it sometimes has. It also makes Eva seem less calculating — power isn’t the only aphrodisiac in play between the two of them. McLaughlin’s Juan, still, persuasively eyes the exit door (being comfortably ex-pat in Paraguay) with more relish than Eva does. MacLaughlin is thoroughly convincing and magnetic throughout, and he sings and moves wonderfully.
He is also the easiest to hear, though Krystina Alabado’s Mistress is also crystal clear during her lovely (and only) song. Not to harp on the point of clarity, but that does matter for the full Evita effect, in no small part because lyricist Rice (perhaps under the influence of Sondheim?) engaged in a lot more word-play and clever turns of phrase in this score, as compared with his earlier Jesus Christ Superstar.
Christopher Oram’s design (he did both scenic and costume design, working with lighting designer Neil Austin) integrates contemporaneous film footage of the actual Eva Peron’s funeral (her casket surrounded by scores of men, interestingly) and matches the sober tone of the production. The impressive tall windows and arches and high ceilings match the impressions of Buenos Aires held by this one-time visitor.
I wouldn’t recommend the show to anyone who isn’t inclined to serious musicals in general, or Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in particular. If you are so inclined and if tickets in the $100 neighborhood aren’t a hardship (though the cheapest seats are $39), you will probably be glad if you go. Many in the opening-night audience were on their feet at the curtain. I’ve certainly spent less satisfying nights seeing musicals recently. (Did I mention Jersey Boys?) But this is a smart, stylish, and occasionally brilliant production of a landmark musical. I’m glad I went.
Evita . Book and lyrics by Tim Rice . Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber . Directed by Michael Grandage . Choreography: Rob Ashford . Featuring Caroline Bowman as Eva, Max Quinlan as Che, Sean MacLaughlin as Peron, Desi Oakley as Eva Alternate, and Christopher Johnstone as Magaldi and Krystina Alabado, Chelsey Arce, Ryan K. Bailer, Nicholas Belton, Ronald L. Brown, Kristen Smith Davis, Maria Failla, Tony Howell, Chris Kotera, Ian Liberto, Alison Mahoney, Robin Masella, Megan Ort, Katerina Papacostas, Morgan Rose, Paige Silvester, Jeffrey C. Sousa, Johnny Stellard, Matt Stokes, Sallyann Swarm, and Tug Watson . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.
Closes Oct 19
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom A stunning production
Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian handsome staging … lacks bite
Jamie McGonnigal . BroadwayWorld Bowman’s Eva brought a new humanity to the role I haven’t seen before.
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway a solid piece of work, anchored by Caroline Bowman’s powerful and well-balanced performance
Michael Poandl . DCMetroTheaterArts never quite able to blast beyond its tightly rehearsed boundaries into the rapturous experience fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber have come to expect.
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide In Sean MacLaughlin’s portrayal of Juan Perón, his characterization lacks the power needed in both acting and singing which makes for a cold rather than imposing performance.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post …magisterial … all that’s lacking is a shot of crazy.