Monday, May 14, 2012


Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America
Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita was one of those shows I grew up with, but never actually saw staged. And perhaps not coincidentally, these two are the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice scores I take most seriously and love the most. I've written on Superstar elsewhere (specifically, here), but I found myself comparing it with Evita after seeing the latter at the Marquis on Friday night.

Both Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were conceived as concept albums, and were subsequently staged. At least when it came to Superstar, this wasn't Lloyd Webber and Rice's intention. They wanted very much to develop that show as a musical, but were met with so much resistance--and were laughed out of so many West End producers' offices--that they went the sound-recording route instead. The result was an absolutely dynamite concept album about the last days of Jesus's life, featuring an orchestra that builds to Wagnerian proportions as Ian Gillan wails dynamically, Murray Head suffers miserably, and Yvonne Elliman pines appealingly. I loved the record so much that I have never seen a truly satisfying stage adaptation of Superstar (and don't get me started on the screen version); I'm convinced that one is not possible, at least for me, because I have spent so much time creating my own, highly personalized and idealized visuals to go with the album I listened to so obsessively in my formative years. I wasn't alone on this one; Superstar was so enormously popular in the United States, where it spent 65 weeks on the Billboard charts when it was released in 1970, that the 1971 Broadway version suffered. The show made its money back due to an extraordinarily huge advance, but closed after a year and a half, largely as the result of too many unflattering comparisons with the album. 

Like Superstar, Evita began life as a concept album, recorded in 1976. Julie Covington played Evita, Paul Jones was Peron, and Colm Wilkinson was Che. It, too, is awesome, but while it exceeded sales of Superstar in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and a number of European and Latin American countries, it fizzled here. The stage version that followed the concept album (in the UK in 1978, and on Broadway in 1979) did not garner as many unfavorable comparisons, and proved a lot more popular; it ran for eight years in the West End and for four years here, and made the careers of both Patti LuPone (Evita) and Mandy Pantinkin (Che).

The scores to both Superstar and Evita strike me as his richest and most thrilling. This might have to do with their concept-album origins, or with the fact that under all the treacle, Lloyd Webber really does know how to play around with lots of different kinds of music. Or maybe it's both. But even the repetitions--the frequently recurring motifs and endlessly repeated refrains that Lloyd Webber has been accused of relying overmuch on in his later shows--make sense within the narrative framework and contribute to some sense of dramatic cohesiveness and propulsion. Both shows, however, can also seem frustratingly incomplete when they are staged: Superstar essentially follows a number of characters fretting their way toward the crucifixion. Such hysterics make for exciting listening, but watching characters pacing around and fretting for two hours doesn't always make for great theater. Evita sort of goes in the other direction: characters aren't so much developed as they are described, or used to narrate important events in the short, strange life of the titular first lady of Argentina. We learn of her death in the opening scene, watch her rise to power, succumb to cancer, and die; all of this is described for us, often by Che, but sometimes by the rest of the cast. We are told repeatedly that Evita is a powerful, driven, conniving woman, but we don't really ever learn much more about her, or about Che, or about Peron. The musical thus disintegrates particularly rapidly when she dies: the score simply rehashes every number we've heard in a brief, increasingly dissonant montage, and then the lights fade abruptly. With no more Evita, there is no more show. This is not exactly a dramaturgical triumph. Rather, the show, like its title character, is flawed and ultimately doesn't function all that well. And yet both the character and the show are great fun, warts and all.

Indeed, the revival of Evita may be a warts-and-all production, but even the warts are gorgeous. Frankly, I can't remember having as much fun at the theater as I did on Friday.

Michael Grandage, late of the Donmar, directed the revival, which is smooth and tight and graceful. The remarkably strong ensemble is, to a member, committed and compelling, and, as an added bonus, their flouncing "Dangerous Game" practically made me cackle. Rob Ashford's choreography is also terrific--the tango (surprise!) is an overarching theme, both visually and musically, and while some of the new arrangements and orchestrations did not work for me (I was particularly disappointed by "The Art of the Possible," which was slowed down considerably and infused with references to Piazzolla, which worked only to kill the momentum), the look of the production is sinewy and sexy, with plenty of undulations and intertwining limbs helping to propel the action along.

I never once forgot that Che was being played by Ricky Martin, but then again, watching Ricky Martin be Ricky Martin for two hours is hardly torture. I was a little worried for him at the start, and he really has no idea what to do with his left arm most of the time, but his voice is well-suited for the part, he seemed to be having as good a time as the ensemble, and dancing is hardly a problem for him, so I ended up being perfectly fine with him as Che.

I ended up liking Elena Roger, as Evita, a lot too, but as with Martin, I had some reservations, especially early on. Roger is a tiny woman with a highly expressive face, and her voice reminds me a great deal of Edith Piaf's. This was a good thing most of the time--Roger was fascinating to watch, and had the kind of dynamism that I am sure the actual Evita possessed. But there are times when the title character needs to be--well, to be Patti LuPone. I admit here that I have never before quite understood the appeal of LuPone, but having seen this revival, I can only imagine that she made absolute mincemeat of the role. LuPone can sustain enormous strength in higher registers, and Roger really struggled with this. As a result, some of the numbers that LuPone made famous--notably "Buenos Aires," "A New Argentina" and "Rainbow High"--suffered, here. Roger sounded, however, quite beautiful in the quieter, more contemplative numbers, and since the second act of Evita is chock full of those, she won me over in the end.

Really, though, the revival belongs to Michael Cerveris, whose Peron was not only superb, but whose utter awesomeness galvanized the rest of the cast. Cerveris is a consistently fine actor--one of the best we've got on Broadway, I think. And when the casting for Evita was first announced, I found myself somewhat miffed that Martin, and not Cerveris, was slated to play Che. But I was wrong--not because I don't think Cerveris would be fine as Che, but because he was just so unbelievably compelling as Peron. His mere presence on the stage partway through act I, in fact, lifted the energy of the show so dramatically and so suddenly that I could practically hear the rest of the cast click. In the "Charity Concert"/"Surprisingly Good for You" scene, Cerveris stands, initially, in the shadows, awaiting his cue to take the stage and address the crowd. His eyes, eerily dead, and his face, bizarrely flat, grow animated only once he steps into the spotlight; this is the portrait of a politician so cold and calculating as to send chills up your spine. And yet, once Peron meets Evita later in the same scene, his growing lust, and eventual love for her is not only entirely believable, but infectious. She's a complicated woman, depicted inaccurately in a show that doesn't always work, and yet she's dynamic enough to bring life to the coldest of cold, dead eyes.

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