Review: EVITA. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Original Choreography by Rob Ashford. Directed by Michael Grandage. With Caroline Bowman, Josh Young, Sean MacLaughlin. Now through January 5, 2014 at The Paramount Theatre.
Surprisingly, it took thirty years for the hit Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical EVITA to make it back to Broadway after its original Tony Award winning run from 1979 to 1983 that made both leads, Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin major stars. The sung through musical chronicling the life of Eva Peron, the wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron had a successful West End remounting in 2006 under the direction of British director Michael Grandage, and that staging was brought back to Broadway in March of 2012 with Elena Roger, reprising her star turn from the West End, as Evita and Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin cast as Che, with Tony winner Michael Cerveris as Peron. The production reached mixed to positive reviews and closed before reaching its first year anniversary…but, the show was successful enough for the producers to launch a national tour of the Broadway production which has landed at Seattle’s Paramount Theater for a week long run.
The original EVITA earned its fame largely for all the rules it broke. It was a sung through show, (no actual spoken dialogue) about a controversial real life figure, that involved politics, corruption and Latin American 20th Century history…none of those subjects being typically thought of as a subjects for a night of lovely musical theater. But, Rice and Lloyd Webber created a work that drew upon that history and emphasized Latin musical motifs to enrich and embellish the story of Eva Peron, her rags to riches tale, from illegitimate country girl to ruthless actress to First Lady & “Spiritual Leader” of Argentina. The power and strength of the character of Evita was enhanced by the strong songs written for the show, including one that became a musical anthem, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”. The fate and success of EVITA was made inevitable by the original brilliant performances (on Broadway) by Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin that set a high standard of excellence for any actors that followed them in their roles, (and also preserved for posterity on the original Broadway cast album.) Elena Roger received largely poor/mixed reviews for the recent revival, with Ricky Martin faring a bit better, but they have large shoes to fill. These larger than life characters and the complex score they must sing require strong actors with strong singing skills.
Sadly, in my view, the current American tour of EVITA is missing that component. EVITA opens with the announcement that the character Evita has just died, and Che, the young, politically active narrator of the show reacts quickly to the public grief being expressed with the sardonic song, “Oh, What A Circus” which snidely comments on the travesty of a bankrupt nation mourning the loss of Evita. This song, like the majority of Che’s songs in EVITA, is a passionate and energetic commentary on the actions of the historical characters…it’s exposition but it’s also giving the information from the very complex personality of this character, a young man opposed to the Peronista regime. The problem with actor Josh Young’s interpretation of Che is that it lacks any sense of passion or even interest in what’s happening. The actor hit all his notes, but was so lacking in any spark or sense of creativity that I was quickly bored by his generic performance.
Things didn’t improve much with the arrival of Caroline Bowman as Evita. Her performance in the early scenes of the production felt wooden and very flat. And, vocally, she was straining on some of those hard to reach notes in the score…there were times she sounded a bit “squawky” or “screechy”. (And, to be fair, this is a notoriously tough role to sing, a reason why most actresses will sing the role 5 or 6 times a week at most.) Both Ms Bowman and Mr. Young seem to be miscast in these roles. Neither had the ability to generate much Latin heat and Evita and Che are roles that require actors to portray a wide range of emotions. Ms Bowman was markedly better in the later scenes of the musical as Evita started to physically fail due to the cancer that riddled her body and was quite moving singing “You Must Love Me” the song originally written for the film version of EVITA and subsequently added to the stage version. But, the dullness and awkwardness of the performance in the first half of the show can’t be excused by a stronger performance in the closing moments of the show.
The strongest performance of the night was by Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Peron. It could be argued that Mr. MacLaughlin is also miscast; he’s far too young for the role. But, both his acting and his vocals were powerful and passionate…he was the only one of the three primary actors to bring any hint of Latin charisma to his acting. He’s all wrong for Peron; someone needs to wise up and move him into the role of Che, one that he is far better suited for than Mr. Young.
I have to also note that I found nearly all aspects of this production to be disappointing. Mr. Grandage’s staging is flat and lifeless especially when compared to the original work by Harold Prince. The set, by Christopher Oram, featured the balconied facade of the Casa Rosada, the Argentinean presidential palace, through the majority of the show, and made famous by the Act II opening scene featuring the big number from EVITA, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”. But, having the balcony there the entire time spoiled the effect normally achieved from that iconic number…it didn’t seem as special or iconic. And, it didn’t make a lot of sense other than the fact it made for a frugal use of sets for this production. Also: the Casa Rosada should have been PINKER! It’s really a very vibrant color!
Finally, a word on the choreography by Rob Ashford. The nicest way I could describe the majority of the choreography in this production is: “Gay Cruise Ship Cabaret Dancing”. I seldom get too worked up over dancing in a show, but the bland and obvious dance steps created by Mr. Ashford were visually annoying and unintentionally comedic.
The mehness of this production, which is a duplication of the one that just played on Broadway, is a sad/happy reminder of two things:
1) Broadway ain’t what it used to be. Lazy, bland productions of lazy bland shows, usually adapted from a recent film or a jukebox full of some musical artist’s hits…or, endless reprises of shows that were better the first time around.
2) Local theater, in Seattle, both musical and not, is frequently BETTER than Broadway. Both The 5th Avenue and The Village Theater could have staged EVITA with more creativity and interest than this roadshow visitor.
Oh, and finally, it’s also really tough to fill Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin’s shoes. If you’re gonna attempt it, make sure you have the chops.