Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Radio Mambo & Evita

Recently, two Latin-themed shows have made their way to Seattle, and you would be hard pressed to find two shows further apart on the theatrical spectrum. The first is by the hysterical Latino comedy troupe, Culture Clash, who brought their show Radio Mambo to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Culture Clash is a three person troupe, consisting of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza. It was formed in San Francisco 15 years ago (on Cinco de Mayo, appropriately enough) and relocated to Los Angeles in 1991. They have written and performed a variety of original works, including The Mission, A Bowl of Beings, S.O.S., Carpa Clash, and Bordertown. They also taped 30 episodes of a Latino-themed show for FOX TV and have appeared in the films Encino Man and Hero.

Their latest show, Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami, was commissioned by Miami Light, and was created through a series of 70 interviews Culture Clash conducted in Miami. These interviews were with the wide spectrum of people that make up Miami: Cuban exiles, 'New York' retirees, Haitian refugees, career criminals, drag queens ... You name it, they played it. And the result is an often times hysterical (and politically incorrect) show that manages to throw in quite a few provocative social insights into the mix. With a flair for characterization that rivals Tracey Ullman, these three men transformed themselves into a variety of characters with only the barest of costuming and props (a hat here, a wig there, with perhaps a scarf added for effect), relying more on spot-on accents and physicalities to create their characters. Somehow, they managed to tread the thin line which separates 'characterization' and 'stereotype' and created real people (often times in absurdly funny situations).

I have never been to Miami, but I left the theatre feeling as if I had taken a tour there. And one where I was allowed to see all parts of the city, even those the rental car maps mark "Danger! Do Not Enter!" Through Radio Mambo, I gained respect for its inhabitants, and an understanding of the pressures and problems, and even joys, which face this patchwork city; all the while, busting a gut with laughter!

Radio Mambo performs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre at 7:30pm, Tuesday through Sunday, with a 2:00pm matinee on the weekends, until May, 23rd. For tickets, call (206) 443-2222.

Meanwhile, across town at the Paramount Theatre, the 20th Anniversary tour of Evita has started its three week run. Advertising itself as an "all-new production" featuring Latino actors in it's leading roles, Evita is touring the country in preparation for a possible transfer to Broadway. Does this Evita win through? Well, the answer is yes ... and no ... .and yes ... and no.

Evita is my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber show, and, in my opinion, his best work. It is the last of his shows to tackle a theme and meaning, and provides a sharp contrast to the soap operas and fairy tales of his which followed. Evita is a modern morality play, and chronicles of rise and fall of one of the most loved and hated women of our time (essentially a cross between Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and Attila the Hun). It is not a subtle show, and the tour has made it even less so.

The heart of Evita rests, of course, in the actress playing the title role. Natalie Toro, who played Eponine on Broadway for three years, makes the part her own, and plays Evita with broad strokes and few subtleties. Her Eva is big, brassy and bold, and never loses her common country roots. She is also different from any other Eva I've seen in that she has thrown in more than a dash of Lucille Ball into the mix, and plays some rather broad comedy. I honestly found it refreshing and enjoyable, as she was the first Eva I have seen make any attempt at finding the humor in the part. She also found some wonderful moments between songs or lines, such as when she finds Peron's 16 year old mistress in his bed. It was the first time we saw Eva being taken aback and at a loss, and it added some needed humanity to the part, for in this production Eva is played with very little humanity or softness. The only real vulnerable moment Eva has in this show is, surprisingly enough, during her most famous number, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Usually played as an anthem or rallying cry, Natalie turned it into a rather touching and vulnerable soliloquy.

Eva is nothing without her Che, however, and she is well balanced in this production by Raul Esparza. He plays the part with a great deal of anger and sarcasm, mocking every institution he can, be it Eva, the military, or the upper classes. Luckily, he never crosses over into 'in your face' territory, as is so easy to do with this part. This is definitely not a subtle part, and there was no subtlety in this performance.

The highlight, for me, was Tom Flynn's portrayal of Magaldi. This is usually a throw away part, as it has very little to do and very few opportunities with which to create a character. His was the first Magaldi that actually seemed like a character and not a stage device to get Eva to Buenos Aires, and if Evita were on Broadway now, I would bet he would be up for a Featured Actor Tony nomination.

Hal Prince's breakthrough staging of the original production is largely recreated here by Larry Fuller, who was the original choreographer for Evita. Unfortunately, it has not held up well, and as the song says, "Face the fact, the rainbow's started to fade." Before going to Broadway, Evita needs a face-lift, I'm afraid, or at least some serious re-thinking. The orchestrations sound dated and would benefit by making the orchestrations more Latin flavored, as occurred in the recent film adaptation. The choreography especially needs to be rethought, as the dances are limp and lifeless, and seem about as 'Latin' as bad West Side Story jumps. The tango which occurs during "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You" (which I have always found to be a flawed concept and very distracting) looks passionless, especially in light of the greater awareness we have of the artform.

Evita would greatly benefit by taking the conceit of becoming more Latin-flavored, which has started with this production, and taking it to its logical progression. This production only goes part way, and it's not enough. It starts off promising, with a breath-taking curtain depicting the struggles and oppressions of Argentina's people in a Latin-style mural. But then it peters out. For some reason, the cast has been directed to pronounce "Argentina" as would be correct in the country itself. But since it is the only word done so (and since it makes for some really clumsily scanned lyrics, especially in "A New Argentina") this sounds incredibly forced and phony.

I don't think that this is the production that should transfer to Broadway. You can keep the cast, especially the talented ensemble, but Evita would be better served by a revival that breathes new life into it.

Evita runs at the Paramount Theatre through May 9th, with performances Tuesday through Sunday. For tickets, call Ticketmaster.

One side note: The Paramount Theatre is an incredible space, dating back to, I believe, the 1920's or earlier. It has recently been restored and is a masterpiece of gilt and crystal. It is truly a gorgeous space and one of the nicest spaces I have ever seen. When I went to see Evita, I noticed an addition to the space; two lit United Airlines logos flanking the stage. These logos where lit until well after the overture started and they glowed brightly in the darkened theater.

This really bothers me, as it seems an ominous omen. While I take my hat off to United for sponsoring Paramount's Broadway series, I find it tacky and disturbing for them to have a billboard in the theater itself. Their logo and/or name is on every poster, on the marquis, and on the program. Isn't that enough?

And I worry what will come next. Staged commercials before the show? Product placement? Nike logos on Sunset Boulevard's costumes?

I am curious if this is an isolated incident, or if this is happening in other theaters across the country. Hopefully this will not spread and will disappear by the next show, as it really was out of place in such a grand space, and destroyed the atmosphere.

- Jonathan Frank

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