“A backstreet girl” is how Evita describes the ambitious Eva Duarte Peron, the ambitious actress who clawed her way from poverty to celebrity as the wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron and, ultimately, to either immortality or infamy, based on which side of fence this polarizing figure put you on.
Her legend was considerably abetted a little over 30 years ago when Hal Prince mounted this blockbuster musical, featuring the music of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (whose music outlining the rise and fall of a different kind of martyr can also be seen across the Main Stem in a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar). Evita took Broadway by storm and became a legend itself. Michael Grandage’s revival, which just opened at the Marquis Theater, is the first Broadway reboot of the tale. Yet in documenting a woman who did plenty of “hustling and fighting, scratching and biting,” this visually arresting staging is nonetheless desperately lacking in bite.
This is partly due to its star, Elena Roger, who first played this role on the West End six years ago, can’t summon up an appetite large enough to convince us of Eva’s quick rise to fame and power. The diminutive Roger, herself of Argentine descent, is better at telegraphing the woman’s more vulnerable moments, particularly in the second act as cancer claims her life at the age of 33. (However, the inclusion of the gorgeous ballad “You Must Love Me,” the Oscar-winning song written for Alan Parker’s 1996 movie version of Evita, feels shoehorned in and fails to express the woman’s self-doubt as it should.) What results is a complex portrait, but not a complete performance. Additionally, she struggles with Rice and Webber’s punishing score, losing many words and straining to hit the high notes of an iconic score that includes “Buenos Aires,” “Rainbow High,” and the signature number, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (Grandage’s production more than does justice to this scene, abetted by Neil Austin’s evocative lighting and Christopher Oram’s transformative sets).
Several of the show’s other key performers serve as a stark contrast to Roger in effortless turns. Tony-winner Michael Cerveris underscores what could be a cardboard vision of Juan with dimension, suggesting arrogance and aggression as well as humanity. The show’s music is far more facile for him than his leading lady; he sings the melodies beautifully. Both Max Von Essen (as Augustín Magaldi, one of the rungs on Eva’s social ladder) and Rachel Potter (a showstopper with the gentle “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”) also play minor roles to the max.
The other necessary component of Evita is Che, the passionate Everyman who acts as Greek chorus and jury throughout the show. Ricky Martin fits the bill; he sings and dances with brio and commands the stage, but the performance is too clean. It’s as though the actor, clearly thrilled to have this opportunity, wants to treat his stage time with utter respect. Che needs to be an angry character, and the actor who plays him needs to give a messy performance simmering with rage, one that lights a fire under the show.
That’s the missing ingredient with Grandage’s Evita: there’s no heat. Evita needs to be a show with an edge, as the Perons led a nation into repression and economic ruin, and this production rarely communicates this sense of danger. It’s a neat, removed bio-musical that plays it safe, catering neither to those who deified nor demonized the subject, but to a more neutral audience somewhere in between. Even Rob Ashford’s wonderful choreography, including multiple variations on the tango, feels a bit too careful. Without the proper amount of righteous indignation, this Evita feels as thin as its star’s 98-pound frame.
Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway, at 45th Street. http://evitaonbroadway.com/ $75.50.
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