Few musical scores stick to the ear more persistently that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Even days after a performance, just try forgetting “A New Argentina” or “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” or “Oh, What a Circus.”
And “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”? Good luck!
It was this powerful music and Tim Rice’s deceptively crude lyrics that made plausible a musical biography of two low-life creeps like Eva and Juan Peron. But it was director Harold Prince who made it a durable hit.
Lloyd Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar was introduced in 1970, during the era of epic albums such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Who’s Tommy, as a stand-alone “concept album.” Like the others, it failed to find a definitive stage rendering. So, wisely, after the concept album of Evita was released in 1976, the partners called in Hal Prince. Early.
Gigantic banners, torchlight marches, black and white newsreel projections and an endless parade of costumes and scenery filled stages with the exotic hysteria of the 1940s when an entire South American nation, tired of being screwed by its ruling class of wannabe Europeans, followed a peroxide blonde actress and her chosen crooked general down a frenzied vortex to dictatorship and bankruptcy.
Anybody who saw (and remembers even slightly) that Hal Prince version of Evita need not be concerned with the national tour of the show now at the Civic Theatre through Nov. 17.
The oomph just isn’t there.
Musically, there’s much to admire. The leads all sing well. Mick Potter has done an above-average job of sound enhancement. And William Waldrop leads a doughty 17-piece orchestra in something very like the original arrangements of Lloyd Webber and Hersey Kay, though I might have enjoyed even more heavy lean on the tango pauses and the brassy swagger.
But opened eyes discover disappointment. The best that can be said about Christopher Oram’s scenery and costumes is that nothing’s really offensive. The nicest visual element of the show is the use of, yes, projected black and white newsreel film. Otherwise, monolithic arches, dark upstage niches and some tall doors stand in for all of Argentina. The costumes are drab and neutral, missing an opportunity to comment on the play and its era. The gorgeous white gown works in “Don’t Cry For Me” but she seems to be singing to a small knot of passers-by.
Because poor Michael Grandage must find a way to float all this ponderous musical development equipped with half the ensemble Prince had and probably less than half the budget. (In addition to the five principals, Grandage has 20 actors. Prince had 40, including five children, useful for crowd scene, innocent choruses and little bottoms for Peron to pinch.)
The director knows the bits that have always worked and borrows when he can. But there also seems to be a puzzling romantic overlay at work, an attempt to make this cynical expose into a love story. Eva Duarte was a non-talented actress who slept her way to the top and Peron was a coldly calculating politician who understood the value of a glamorous wife. They augmented each other smoothly until her untimely death of cancer when she was just 32. But they were hardly Romeo and Juliet. Nor even Shakespeare’s Scottish couple. Just power-mad land sharks. At least in the way Evita is written.
It’s right there in the script. Peron takes her to his place that first night and, perhaps as a test, leaves to her the chore of dumping the resident tootsie, which she does with enthusiasm. Though it’s clear that Caroline Bowman is quite capable of shrieking her displeasure, we rarely see it. “Who does the King of England think he is?” is petulant, not outraged. And Sean MacLaughlin is a Peron more interested in showing smoldering Latin looks than two-faced dictator treachery. They both sing well, together and individually, but the acid words and the moony crooning don’t match. (A useless song written for the failed movie version – “You Must Love Me” –is included and both slows down and sweetens up the show at the wrong moment.)
There’s some tampering too with the role of Che Guevara, the narrator and frequent participant. It was Hal Prince’s idea to emphasize his identity as the future Socialist guerilla icon but the producers and/or director of this roadshow revival may be squeamish yet about the audience’s taste for a Cuban commie in such a dominant role. Well, there was plenty of argument about all that back in the day but now it’s really only necessary to note that Josh Young sings the hell out of the part and lifts the whole show accordingly.
I really do sympathize with Grandage, the director. Not only is he understaffed but he also, I’m betting, is stuck with ALL the music from the original score. Probably a matter of contractual rights. So, too often, he has wide gaps and scant filling. Neil Austin’s lighting keeps everything in gloom whenever possible but the people in those parades do start to look very familiar. And choreographer Rob Ashford has opted to keep his folks at very basic hup-hup in those long lines of music designed to back startling conceptual effects.
So, does Evita work outside its original staging? Or is it, like Fiddler on the Roof or Cats for instance, eternally stuck in an initial concept?
There probably are two answers. Don’t try the show without something close to Hal Prince’s approach. But if you just want the music, go back to the original original – the concept album – and let everybody stand around comfortably belting those songs that will take you days to get out of your ears.