Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 5, 2012
Evita Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Michael Grandage. Choreographed by Rob Ashford. Scenic & costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Sound design by Mick Potter. Wig & hair design by Richard Mawbey. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber & David Cullen. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Music Coordinator David Lai. Cast: Ricky Martin, Elena Roger, Michael Cerveris, with Max von Essen, Rachel Potter, and at certain performances Christina DeCicco plays the role of “Eva,” Ashley Amber, George Lee Andrews, Wendi Bergamini, Eric L. Christian, Kristine Covillo, Colin Cunliffe, Margot de la Barre, Bradley Dean, Rebecca Eichenberger, Melanie Field, Jennie Ford, Maya Jade Frank, Constantine Germanacos, Laurel Harris, Bahiyah Hibah, Nick Kenkel, Brad Little, Erica Mansfield, Emily Mechler, Isabela Moner, Sydney Morton, Jessica Lea Patty, Alex Pevec, Kristie Dale Sanders, Timothy Shew, Michaeljon Slinger, Johnny Stellard, Alex Michael Stoll, Daniel Torres, Matt Wall.
Like the pair's earlier Jesus Christ Superstar, which is also receiving a (mostly successful) revival on Broadway this season, Evita uses rock and pop to provide kinetic commentary on the whirlwind of celebrity and its practitioners. Possessing little dialogue and loaded with songs — some tinged with Latin flavor, some styled as power ballads, all focused on examining some crucial aspect of Eva's personality — it balances intensity and earnestness without becoming silly or overly mawkish. (The exception is "You Must Love Me," ham-handedly and unconvincingly interpolated from the more sympathetic 1996 film.) Even its best-known number, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," is a scheming statement about how Eva knew how to use her public image to nefarious advantage.
The bad news is that, for all the color and swirl director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford have imparted, and the presence of a largely excellent cast led by Elena Roger as Eva (reprising her role from the 2006 London revival), Ricky Martin as Everyman skeptic-narrator Che (no longer Guevara), and Michael Cerveris as Juan, this production never goes as far as the real Eva did. And the reason for that is also the one that either elevates or constricts any production of this takes-no-prisoners pop opera: the actress playing the woman at its volatile center.
That starts with the voice necessary to do justice to this fierce score. Oh, she can hit all the notes (though not always without visibly working at it). But forget about finding the go-for-broke, stratospheric-belt vocals of Elaine Paige (in London) and Patti LuPone (on Broadway, in 1979). Roger's attack is tentative, even apologetic, and at odds with the reckless ambition of Eva as written whether of the overt ("Buenos Aires") or covert (her "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You" seduction); there's no sting in anything she sings.
Then there's her pronounced, if not quite impenetrable, accent. Roger has apparently not mastered singing in English, and loses more words than is acceptable as the lead in a sung-through show. She runs into particular trouble when Webber's music pulls her to the topmost extent of her range; articulation is challenging up there to begin with, but Roger does not even seem to be trying to communicate the meaning, or even the bare syllables, of Rice's lyrics during those moments. Losing whole verses is a too-common occurrence.
Her acting, however, is primitive throughout. There's barely a distinguishable difference between the enterprising peasant girl who uses sex to induce up-and-coming lounge singer Augustín Magaldi (Max von Essen) to take her to Buenos Aires, where she dumps him and pursues a series of increasingly powerful men before settling on Juan. Roger's anger and opportunism don't evolve as the character does; she employs no new tactics to acquire or maintain power as she rises through the ranks. Whether she's evicting Juan's current mistress (Rachel Potter), rousing the rabble with inflammatory radio addresses, dazzling Europe on a meet-and-greet tour, or struggling to stand upright while dying of cancer, Roger's Eva is a single boring woman from start to finish.
Luckily, no one else has followed her lead. Martin (who previously appeared on Broadway in Les Misérables) is spectacular, wielding a bewitching stage presence and a robustly theatrical voice that shreds through even Webber's trickiest passages and displays both the tenderness and impatience that characterize Eva's devoted adherents and harshest critics. He contrasts beautifully with Cerveris, who unleashes a performance of terrifying weight in the frequently thankless role of Juan, radiating a power and perniciousness that are so magnetic you can easily understand how he bends an entire country to his will. Magaldi may be a one-joke and one-song role, but von Essen invests it with such passion that he becomes a major and unforgettable figure. Potter appears onstage for but a few minutes, and does nothing but sing the plaintive "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," but does so with an unadorned, heartbreaking determination that drives home exactly the way Eva leaves victims in her wake.
If Grandage's staging would benefit from a bit more concentrated oomph (don't expect anything as epic as Harold Prince's deconstructive original take), it's suave, intelligent work that effectively telescopes this sweeping story into the theater's confines. Neither the pacing nor the energy flags, he could just stand to encourage a bit more of both. Ashford has been brutally overchoreographing musicals for years (most recently the revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), so I'm happy to report that his high-stepping dances here only occasionally push harder than they need to.
Christopher Oram has designed a lush set that melts seamlessly from the poverty-stricken village of Eva's youth into the grand façade of the Casa Rosada, and costumes that find the depravity in elegance and spiritual worthiness in rags; Neil Austin's lights are, likewise, first-rate. The orchestrations (which Webber has revamped with David Cullen) lack the punch of the full-bodied originals, but more than suffice.
That's true of most everything about this Evita, except for Roger. Her performance, nothing more than adequate, leaves a gaping hole at the middle of the action that's only partially filled by the superior elements that surround her. Eva should move you, taunt you, and enrage you, but not leave you this cold. It takes until Eva's final song, "Lament," for Roger to register: You believe she accepts her decision to "burn with the splendor of the brightest fire" at the expense of a long life and children in a way you haven't much else about her. Even so, you can't help but regret yourself that you couldn't witness more of that same searing flame.