BWW Reviews: Theatre Under the Stars' EVITA has Gorgeous Heart and Grit
Like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, EVITA began as a rock opera concept album. The success of the album led to the 1978 production on London's West End, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical, and the 1979 production on Broadway, which made EVITA the first British musical to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1980. With a slew of regional productions, revivals, and tours, EVITA continues to capture the hearts of audiences, and the U.S. National Tour of the 2012 Broadway Revival production, presented in Houston by Theatre Under the Stars, is a prime example of why.
EVITA opens on July 26, 1952 at a cinema in Buenos Aires with an announcer stating that Eva Perón has passed away. A grief stricken crowd laments her passing, and Che (which means "guy" in Argentina) begins to narrate how 15-year-old Eva Duarte in 1934 blackmailed singer Augustín Magaldi to take her away from provincial Junin to the bustling city of Buenos Aires. From there, she starts her climb to the top, eventually marrying Colonel Juan Perón of the Argentine Army. Eva encourages Perón to run for president, and before long, the ambitious duo is Argentina's first family. As the musical progresses, it is revealed to the audience how from 1946 until her death from cancer in 1952, Eva meddled in the politics of Argentina while trying to do everything she could to improve the lives of Argentina's lowest socio-political classes, especially the descamisados (or shirtless ones).
One of my favorite Broadway memories is sitting in the center of Row A of the Mezzanine at the Marquis Theatre in July of 2012 and seeing Elena Roger, Michael Cerveris, Ricky Martin, Max von Essen, Rachel Potter, and the rest of the talented cast and crew bring Michael Grandage and Rob Ashford's re-imagined and more authentic production of EVITA to life. For the tour, Seth Sklar-Heyn has recreated Michael Grandage's direction, and Chris Bailey has recreated Rob Ashford's choreography. Just like its Broadway counterpart, Seth Sklar-Heyn and Chris Bailey fill the show with dazzling heart, passion, tons of Latin inspired dance movements, and the tango, which is the national dance of Argentina. However, Seth Sklar-Heyn's strongest directorial choice was allowing the cast to reinterpret the roles to suit their talents, which makes this production refreshingly original. Ultimately, with this tour, audiences are gifted with a gritty and compelling version of EVITA that equally exposes Eva Perón's positive and negative attributes.
Taking on the meaty role of Eva Perón, or Santa Evita (Saint Eva), Caroline Bowman gives audiences the vivacious and energetic qualities seen from Elena Roger's take on the role, but she sings it mostly in a mezzo-soprano range. Gone are the breathy and airy upper notes, as Caroline Bowman sings the role with a heavier bravado that is more akin to Patti LuPone's take on the iconic role. However, comparing her to both Elena Roger and Patti LuPone is entirely unfair as she masterfully makes the role her own, fascinating the audience with her own interpretation of the score and multifaceted and charismatic woman. Through Caroline Bowman's take on the role we first see Eva Duarte as a girl who latches onto opportunity and rides those coattails to Buenos Aires. Once there, she loses some of her naivety and begins to calculate her rise to the top of Argentine society. With a gifted voice, she brings life to all the classic songs written for the character (i.e. "Beunos Aires," "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Waltz for Eva and Che," and "You Must Love Me"), but her rendition of "Rainbow High" is hands down the best I have ever heard or seen. Likewise, despite my familiarity with the score and story, Caroline Bowman pumped so much emotionality into her characterization of Eva Perón that I couldn't help but get misty eyed during "You Must Love Me" and "Montage," which is a first for me with this musical.
Josh Young's dynamic Che is an Argentinean everyman. Doing away with Hal Prince's Che Guevara interpretation of the character, this production brings Che into the action of the musical, letting him be affected by the choices that Eva Perón makes. Argentina's victories are his own; however, as hindsight is always 20-20, he is also able to cynically reflect on the scheming, possible money laundering, the intrigue, and the controversy that surrounded Argentina's famed first lady. Vocally, Josh Young appears to have studied at the Josh Groban School of Enunciation and Vocal Projection, as he gives audiences a crisply enunciated and cleanly sung mostly tenor and baritone performance which adds emphasis and weight to his observations. Everything about his Che is laudable; however, his choice to sing the end of "The Chorus Girl Hasn't Learned" in full head voice was not something I personally appreciated.
Bringing Colonel Juan Perón to life, Sean MacLaughlin creates a powerful character that becomes drunk on love. His admiration for his wife clouds his judgment, allowing her to meddle in the politics of the country more than he should. Yet, as any good husband should be, he is fiercely protective of her and doesn't seem to understand why his fellow leaders of the Argentine Army are so displeased with her. Singing with stirring emotionality and clarity, he performs Perón in an appealing lyric baritone range and shines on numbers like "I'd be Surprisingly Good For You" and "She Is a Diamond." Lastly, his anguished cry when Eva collapses is superbly riveting and heartbreaking.
As Augustín Magaldi, Christopher Johnstone is wonderfully conceited and arrogant. His rendition of "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" is well sung. Moreover, Krystina Alabado's Mistress steals the stage and our hearts for her lovely performance of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." The remainder of the ensemble performs well, alternating between Eva's Family, Eva's Lovers, Generals, the upper class, and the descamisados with ease.
Andrew Lloyed Webber and David Cullen's new orchestrations for the iconic score delight with their more authentic flair, and the heavily reduced orchestra, conducted by William Waldrop, plays them beautifully. The reduced size does cause some of the epic scope heard on Broadway to be missing, but what audiences hear for the tour is still moving. Additionally, William Waldrop's Musical Direction and Kristen Blodgette's Music Supervision must be lauded for ensuring that this cast of EVITA cleanly enunciated every syllable in the libretto, making this the easiest to understand production of the show I have ever heard.
Christopher Oram's Scenic and Costume Designs are gorgeous and altogether stunning.
Neil Austin's Lighting Design is tonal, atmospheric, and emotional. Bright colors and picturesque shadows mix well with the atmospheric stage fog to give the musical a grandiose and cinematic quality.
Falling under the spell of EVITA on Broadway in 2012, I was excited and nervous to see this production. I was afraid to have my memories of the Broadway Revival tarnished, but I am happy to report that this production doesn't do that. In many ways, the U.S. National Tour is like experiencing the show for the first time all over again. The iconic moments that audiences expect are all there, but with the freedom to reinterpret the roles, this talented cast gets to bring their own artistry to the production and make this EVITA one that is not to be missed.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
The U.S. National Tour of the Broadway Revival of EVITA, presented by Theatre Under the Stars, runs in the Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston 77002 from May 6 to 18, 2014. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.tuts.com or call (713) 558-TUTS (8887).
Production Photos by Richard Termine.
Josh Young as Che.
Caroline Bowman as Eva & the Cast of the National Tour of EVITA.
The Cast of EVITA.
Christopher Johnstone as Magaldi.