Review: Evita

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Photo by Richard Termine

Dear Andrew Lloyd Webber,

We should correspond more often, what with the first-ever Broadway revival of Evita (in a for-profit, commercial run at the Marquis Theatre) coming fast on the sandals of the third Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (in a for-profit, commercial run at the Neil Simon Theatre).

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For purposes of this letter, though, I’ll focus on Evita because, well, this is the designated blog post for the production and you can always read my thoughts about Superstar elsewhere on this site.

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If you’ll indulge me, let me put a personal perspective on Evita. This Broadway revival is the first time I’ve seen it on stage. When I was a kid, maybe 12 or 14, and just starting to become passionate about the theatre, I was mesmerized by the TV commercials for the original run (and no, I won’t mention a word about your leading lady in this post).

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How well I can remember sitting down before my record player (let’s have a second for that image, shall we?) to hear the original cast album; how well I recall the versatility of your melodies proving, and I don’t write this to be hyperbolic, gasp-inducing. A ticket price of $35 or $45 was a bit elusive for me as a preteen, though, so, like so many kids in the under-18, stage struck set of that time, I was left to my imagination-to picture, as vividly as I possibly could, Harold Prince’s production as the living manifestation of Evita‘s strong sung-through narrative, filtered through all that unbridled agitprop. True, the throbbing political undertone of Tim Rice’s lyrics were, frankly, as elusive to me then as that $35 or $45-I thought that the “sixes and sevens” referred to in “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” referred to dress sizes, not the size of the social receptions attended by Eva Peron. And certainly I couldn’t have dissected Peronism in 1980 with any more clarity than any other political “ism.” As a biographical work — as a work that layers a distinct, unyielding viewpoint about a famous woman who earned far less hagiography than she received — Evita was for me then, and remains for me now, a fine example of dramatic economy. I rarely think a moment in the show, as written, is wasted.

And this revival little alters my view of the show, as written. What it has done, however, is catapulted me into a state of hyper-consciousness regarding the differences between the images I remember conjuring up in my too-active teenage mind (all of which I can still see after so many years) and the very practical challenges of staging the show itself. Without writing to liberally about what I imagined versus what I saw the other night in this Michael Grandage-directed revival, I realize now that what I imagined was a film. In person, at least on the stage of the Marquis, at least with this cast, at least with this production, Evita is so much smaller, so much more mortal, than I pictured it.

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Casting, as you well know, is nine-tenths of just about anything, and I am just about stumped when it comes to Elena Roger in the title role. Tiny as Elaine Paige (your bold and original Evita), I initially got the sense that here was an actress in the same mold: small framed, powerfully voiced, transcendent in character. Yet Roger ultimately doesn’t deliver on the whiff of promise. Her voice has real limits, particularly as your notes pitch into the stratosphere. And whereas many actresses would overcompensate for their vocal shortcomings by infusing the character of Evita with sensuality, charisma, danger and élan, Roger’s approach is to go metaphorically flat. Her Evita plods on. And on..

I can actually make a case for this “choice” — although I wouldn’t call it a choice so much as a failure to act. Eva Peron, wife of the Argentine strongman Juan Peron in those turbulent, early Cold War years, was but a cipher. She knew the Argentine people would pour directly into their image of her whatever it was they wanted to see, hear and think. Her genius, really — and I think you and Mr. Rice dramatize it well — was simply to understand that dynamic with her citizenry and knowing just how to exploit it.

But in theatrical and dramatic terms, that means Peron, who is played in this revival with misanthropic charm by Michael Cerveris, must be the dramatic anchor of the piece, and Evita isn’t written that way. It means that Evita’s foil, Che, the narrator, needs a delicate mixture of character traits, and unfortunately, Ricky Martin has figured out how to blend Che’s directness and honesty (given how much he addresses the audience) with Che’s scorn and loathing of Evita. Mind you, it’s not that Martin can’t act. I simply suspect that Grandage didn’t know how to direct him. (Can you the hear the song…”I don’t know how to direct him…”) I felt sorry for Martin because he so patently wants to be adored on that stage and to entertain. “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” the most winning ensemble number in Evita, allows Martin to let loose and dance, which is, for many folks, what they’re going to pay for. Would that there were more of it.

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So, let’s recap. This production of Evita has a bland, nasal, warble-tending Evita and a bland, puppyish Che and a Juan Peron who is ruminating and at an emotional remove. Where, then, is the audience to go psychologically? I am sure you agree that the whole point of Evita is to provoke a wellspring of feelings-why is it that we need to like, love or worship our leaders? Why do successful politicians inevitably yield to demagoguery? In this revival, however, I think the audience may only clutch your melodies — the thing that lured me into the thrall of Evita all those years ago. In this sense, this revival could have been a concert staging and achieved pretty much the same level of artistic achievement and at far less cost. For example, Roger does well when instructed how to harness a song. Her “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” doesn’t find her flung about the stage the way she is in “Buenos Aires”; she can focus, she can act.

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One final note, Lord Lloyd Webber. It’s about that song, “You Must Love Me,” originally written for the film version of the show? It feels stuck into this production like a needle in a hospital patient. Every time I hear it I think, Must I? If “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is Eva’s sly demand for a slavish kind of citizen worship, delivered as self-pity disguised as sacrifice, “You Must Love Me” a child on the verge of a temper tantrum. Neither is pretty. But at least “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” showcases Peron’s gift for manipulation; we fathom how she did what she did. “You Must Love Me,” by contrast, is a very vain plea for attention. We mustn’t love Evita. But we should want to.