The lights are dimmed. On a balcony, a woman comes through a smoky spotlight in a blinding diamond-white gown. As the strings swell, she belts out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” It is one of the iconic moments in pop-opera history, and 35 years later, in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” it still has knockout musical-theater magic. The first national tour of the celebrated 2012 Broadway revival is making the rounds (seen by this critic at the Academy of Music during its weeklong run).
The pageantry started before the curtain went up, with Eva appearing over Broad Street on the Academy balcony and tangoers picking partners for street dancing on the Avenue of the Arts. This revival does not spare anything in production scale, and Christopher Oram’s set and costume designs have “star quality.” From the grandeur of full-scale palace windows and Casa Rosada balcony to the dingy café where Eva Duarte got her start, it is just as impressive in its gritty detail.
The story is a murky mix of historical fact and myth as Eva works her way all the way up to being able to seduce Juan Perón, hero-general-turned-politician. She becomes beloved by the nation as the heroine of the common people, even as she lords over political oppression and robs the state for Perón’s power. All of the hypocrisies are narrated by Che, with songs like “Oh, What a Circus,” “High Flying Adored” and “The Money Keeps Rolling In.” As Perón’s reign becomes more exploitive and violent, the people’s love for Evita blinds them. Actually, this jaundiced view of a military politician is not without relevancy in our era.
This is a smartly conceived production, and director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford picked up Tonys for it, even though it closed on Broadway before it recouped all of its costs. It is easy to predict, though, that it will do very well on tour. It is not reliant on total star power elements to put it over. Still, some of it is too packaged. The sound design, with everyone heavily amped, flattens out some great voices and any subtlety is lost in the din. Ashford’s choreography is all over the map, with ensemble scenes that have dazzle but little refinement; much of it reads as choreographic filler. The tango sequences in the café and all of the partnering should have a more culturally authentic sharpness.
But, Grandage and Ashford keep things in motion because, without doubt, Rice and Webber’s narrative heavy-handedness and, by now, redundancy in scoring needs distractions. Evita has many famous songs, and conductor William Waldrop and a synthesizer orchestration actually does a good job equalizing the whole score so that some of the quieter incidental and transitional sections are more musically interesting that the hits. It’s never better than when some of the lyrics are sung in Spanish and in the intimate rhythm guitar sections.
This is a strong vocal cast, starting with the wonderful Christopher Johnstone as Magaldi, the tango singer, doing so much more than vamping this style. Krystina Alabado makes the most of her gold-locket voice in one scene as Perón’s castoff mistress singing “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Josh Young (2012 Tony nominee for Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar”) gives Che swagger and vocal dimension past his lustrous Broadway belter tones. Sean MacLaughlin is a mesmerizing Perón, his rich baritone just busting open this role. MacLaughlin and Caroline Bowman as Evita have silver-screen chemistry. Bowman is as believable as a café pickup as she is as a megalomaniacal wife of a tyrant; she is electrifying in the show’s iconic number, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
It’s worth noting that in this production, the part of Che is returned to its original concept of being an composite symbol of the people, not firebrand revolutionary Che Guevera, which was something that Broadway director Hal Prince devised for the first Broadway production of “Evita.”