Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Evita follows the real story of Eva Duarte (Caroline Bowman), a poor girl in Argentina who rose to power and fame in the 1940s by calculating, scheming and even sleeping her way to the top. She would eventually marry Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin), who at the time they met was a Colonel but who would eventually be elected as Argentina's President, making Eva Argentina's first lady. Narrated by Che (Josh Young), a young man who has no respect for Eva and Peron's devious and sometimes illegal ways behind their rise to power, Evita is an interesting history lesson about a young poor woman who gets caught up in the struggle for fame and success. It is also a pretty good musical, albeit one with a few shortcomings.
Director Michael Grandage has assembled a first rate cast as well as excellent creative elements. The energy of the cast and choreography and the pulsating and driven orchestrations mirror the Perons' energy and drive to power most effectively. This national tour is based on the recent London and Broadway revivals which Grandage also directed. The Broadway revival last year was the first time the show was revived on Broadway since the original 1979 production. "You Must Love Me," the Oscar winning song written for the 1996 film, has also been incorporated into this production, giving Eva a nice solo toward the end of the second act.
Grandage has done an excellent job in not only directing the cast and incorporating the excellent creative elements but in also adding many nice touches that I've never seen used in this musical. He uses newsreel footage in several areas, including showing the masses of people at Eva's funeral that begins the musical. This addition is a perfect way to show the connection she had to the people; you just can't get with a cast of only 20 or so on the stage mourning her death when in actuality there were thousands lining the streets just to get a glimpse of her casket being driven by. The "Art of the Possible" game, which shows Peron's rise to power by defeating his opponents, is usually one of musical chairs, with Peron winding up in the last remaining empty chair. But Grandage goes in a different direction, and shows the struggles between the opponents, along with a somewhat twist ending to the game, and how Peron wins through deception.
Grandage also incorporates the wedding of Eva and Juan into the act one finale, "A New Argentina." In doing so, he easily adds a simple scene into an existing song which made me realize that the book and score never actually let us know that they were married. While this is one of the many shortcomings of the book, making us connect the dots between scenes one too many times, it is nice to see how Grandage easily uses the scene to show an important moment in their relationship. He adds another great moment in the same song of the election, where Juan is running for Presidentthe women who aren't able to vote walk past the voting box, as the men around them all cast their ballots, with looks of frustration, pain and hope that one day they will be able to vote as well.
Rob Ashford's choreography drives the plot forward with energetic steps. His use of the tango throughout the show, even slowed down for some of the more dramatic scenes, is another extremely effective way to show the passion, power and romance behind not only the story of the Peron's rise but the people of Argentina as well.
The role of Eva is a difficult one to play and Caroline Bowman is up to the challenge. She does an excellent job of handling the many dance steps required, including a fast and complicated tango during "A New Argentina" as well as little difficulty in handling the required vocals, though in the first act her voice doesn't quite soar as much as the score requires. I'm not sure if that is due more to the parts of the score that are extremely rangy, sometimes requiring Eva to scream or screech her lyrics, or if Bowman is holding back until the second act. Her second act performance, including a lovely "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," and some nice touches in the songs that show Eva's health decline. She is adept at the acting requirements as well: all gangly yet extremely forward as the sixteen-year-old girl enthralled with the older singer who comes to her town, which she sees as her ticket to the big city of Buenos Aires; calculating yet passionate when she first meets Peron; and frail but still determined as Eva's health begins to decline. Bowman has no problem portraying all of the levels of Eva's transformation from awkward girl to assured woman.
Josh Young is simply amazing as Che. His voice is extremely powerful and his enunciation of every lyric is just about perfect. He is intense as the on-looking narrator of Eva's story and easily shows the frustration at what he sees going on around him. He is often on stage watching the action around him but silent as well, and he never pulls you away from the action, even though you know he is always there. Young received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Judas in the recent revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and I expect many more nominations and awards are in his future.
The role of Peron can be a bit tough to play, since it doesn't have a lot of layers but Sean MacLaughlin has found a nice portrayal, including showing Peron as more of a romantic. His wails of despair when Eva's body starts to fail make a nice startling moment and I lik how MacLaughlin attempts some sort of Latin American accent in his speech and singing, even though no one else in the cast appears to have been directed to do so. It adds a nice touch of authenticity to this extremely large cast of almost all white American actors.
Christopher Johnstone is just about perfect as Magaldi, the man whom Eva first latches onto and who takes her to Buenos Aires. He has the right almost-seedy look as the man who ends up in a small town playing and singing for people who don't really want to listen to him, but finding the one young girl who is fascinated with him. He also has a superb voice.
Krystina Alabado is Peron's mistress and, even though we only see her in one short scene, she does a lovely job with her solo "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," about not knowing what will happen to her now that Eva has taken over her place in Peron's bed.
Christopher Oram has created large and lavish set pieces as well as some striking costume designs. Lighting by Neil Austin is excellent. The stage is constantly awash in streaming lights of different colors and the combination of Oram's sets and Austin's lights provide amazing visuals. The sound design by Mick Potter is simply excellent. The lyrics and dialogue were all crisp and clear. Considering this is a tour that is only in town for a week with limited time for setup, that is even more impressive. The superb orchestrations by Lloyd Webber and David Cullen are somewhat revised from the original 1970s ones. They also incorporate some of the heavier tango-inspired orchestrations used for the film.
Lloyd Webber and Rice have composed a difficult score, so difficult that Bowman only plays six of the eight weekly performances, and the show itself is basically two different shows: act one is energetic with pulsating orchestrations driving both the show and the Perons to victory in the run for the Presidency; and the second act is more serious, slow and low key as Evita succumbs to cancer and the shortcomings and wrong doings of the Peron's are realized. While the score works well to mirror Eva's decline, the book by Rice often glosses over some plot points, making the audience fill in the gaps. The show also doesn't have the strongest ending; we are simply told what happened to Evita's body but nothing about Peron.
The shortcomings of the show are far outweighed by the driving score and the performances, especially Young's, and Grandage's self-assured direction, Ashford's driving choreography and the amazing creative elements. This is a production for any theatre lover out there looking for a big, loud and creative musical with plenty of dance, drama and almost perfect direction.
Evita runs through Sunday December 8 at ASU/Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered at http://www.asugammage.com/ or by calling 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.evitaonbroadway.com/tour.html.
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber