The sung-through musical “Evita” is a two-problem play. First, make the story coherent even though it lacks a narrative thread. Second, eke out some warmth from the principal characters, a pair of fascist dictators. “Evita” ran nearly four years on Broadway (1979-83), apparently solving both problems. Now back on B’way, the show seems to have lost its luster. The story line remains shadowy, and the principal characters lack warmth.
It’s difficult to care about Eva Duarte de Peron. A country girl who was taken by a night club singer to Buenos Aires at age 15, she ran through a string of lovers on her way to careers as model, actress and, ultimately, wife of Argentina’s future President, Juan Peron. Claiming deep concern for her country’s underclass, she rose to national and even worldwide prominence. Evita, as the people dubbed her, remained the toast of Argentina up to her death in 1952 at age 33, even though the country had fallen into malaise and bankruptcy under the Perons’ rule.
The show begins with Evita’s funeral, flashes back to Eva’s carefree teen-aged days and, via mostly somber progressive scenes, brings us back to Madame Peron’s deathbed. Along the way, Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics blast forth in solos and ensemble numbers that all end in similar crescendo.
Like the composing team’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita” originated as a recording and grew into a stage musical. And just as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” propelled “Superstar” into mainstream consciousness, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is the symbol of “Evita.” It’s déjà vu all over again. But as another critic pointed out, when you think about it, why would Argentina cry for her?
The show demands a strong leading lady, but Elena Roger, so highly praised in London, is small in both stature and projection. She’s a bit old for the guileless and sensual young Eva Duarte and hardly imposing as the mature Eva rises in station and power.
The principal male characters in “Evita” are Juan Peron and a historically misplaced Che Guevera. Che, who was Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolutionary compatriot, and who was indeed born in Argentina, would have been six years old in 1934, but he is narrator/observer throughout “Evita.” The role of Che is flashy, a quality the highly anticipated Ricky Martin tries to convey through his hips. He sings and moves with some style and attitude, but an actor he’s not.
Michael Cerveris certainly is an actor – the only principal here with any authority. As good as he is, he cannot generate passion between Juan and Evita alone. Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford keep the show moving, but they’ve short-changed the human relationships.
Colorless sets and costumes are even more drab in the prevailing darkness, but even rainbow hues in the light of day wouldn’t make me care about this Evita or “Evita.”
Marquis Theatre in the Marriott Marquis Hotel, B’way between 45th & 46th Streets, Times Square, NYC