(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reverend’s Review: A Less than Rainbow-High Evita

Although it was written by British theatrical wunderkinds Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the musical Evita and its subject — late Argentinian first lady Eva Peron — are hardly pro-British. Peron and her presidential husband, Juan, committed themselves to kicking colonial Brits out of Argentina and largely succeeded in doing so. On the other hand, Evita paints a largely unflattering image of the Perons that can potentially be viewed as Webber’s and Rice’s revenge.

The musical was a huge, award-winning success in both London and New York during its initial late-1970s/early-80s run and was adapted into a hit movie starring Madonna in 1996. Now, a revival of Evita is on tour in the US following its fairly brief London and Broadway productions last year. It is now playing at the historic Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through November 10th. The revival’s British director, Michael Grandage, may think he’s nailed the Perons once and for all but this weak production only ends up affirming the power couple’s theatrical and historical resilience.

Framed by events surrounding Eva’s premature death from cervical cancer at the age of 33 in 1952, the sung-through score recounts her upbringing as a poor, illegitimate daughter of a philandering middle-class father; her early career as an ambitious actress and radio star; and her eventual marriage to Juan and their largely shared political achievements. The leftist revolutionary Che, modeled on Che Guevara, serves as narrator throughout. Webber’s music remains stirring and Rice’s lyrics are enduringly incisive as well as frequently witty, and the revival incorporates their Oscar-winning “You Must Love Me” written for the film version.

This production proved controversial on Broadway primarily due to its casting of Latinos as Eva and Che. While the authenticity-leaning intention behind this was commendable, those cast — Buenos Aires-born Elena Roger and former pop singer (and now openly gay) Ricky Martin — were reportedly not up to the challenge vocally and/or dramatically. Apparently having learned from this experience, the tour’s producers cast all-American performers Caroline Bowman, Josh Young and Sean MacLaughlin in the central roles of Eva, Che and Juan, respectively. They are physically fine but Bowman’s voice was shrill at times on opening night in LA, perhaps due to jitters, and Young lacked some essential fire. MacLaughlin, gifted with an excellent singing voice, came across best.

The cast, however, is the least of the revival tour’s problems. Scenic designer Christopher Oram fills the stage with impressive, opera-scale sets only to have the upper two-thirds of them go mostly unused. Act Two opener “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” is a welcome if obvious exception to this, since it is traditionally sung from the balcony of the presidential palace. Aside from that, the balcony hosts an occasional flag, projection or random appearance by Che but largely stands empty and inert, for which blame ultimately must be placed on director Grandage.

Rob Ashford’s choreography is also disappointingly uninspired. While his work here was nominated for a Tony, I found it busy and unfocused (and, on opening night, the dancers weren’t always in unison when they should have been). The choreography really only comes alive during “And the Money Kept Rolling In” midway through Act Two. The show’s other major dance numbers suffer, sometimes laughably so, from a lack of clarity and an excess of arms-akimbo gestures.

Evita is one of my favorite musicals, and the best production of it I’ve seen to date was an in-the-round, refreshingly scaled-down dinner theatre mounting I caught in Chicago in the mid-1980s. It proved that lavish sets, a full orchestra and authentic casting are not essential to this show’s success but respect for its subjects and historical context is required. The current revival falls disappointingly short in this regard.

Reverend’s Rating: C

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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