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BWW Reviews: High-Flying, Adored Revival of EVITA Hits Hollywood

"Oh, what a circus! Oh, what a show!" You can (sing) that again.

In one of this season's most pleasantly stunning surprises, the latest Broadway iteration of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's grand stage musical EVITA has arrived in Southern California with its "Rainbow Tour," specifically housed inside the appropriately ornate surroundings of the beautiful Pantages Theatre in Hollywood (its three-week L.A. tour stop concludes November 10 but returns nearby with an additional two weeks of performances in Orange County beginning December 10).

A faithful, richly layered direct transfer of the show's 2012 Tony Award-nominated revival---featuring a new trio of immensely-talented, big-voiced leads that will easily earn audiences' collective cheers---this entertaining, vibrantly refreshed production expertly blends modern sensibilities with classic staging, all while highlighting what is arguably Webber and Rice's most interesting musical collaboration.

Truth be told, of all of Webber's theatrical scores, EVITA is indeed a personal favorite, primarily because of its less overt aural lushness---it's superb ear candy achieved without the overwrought melodramatic swells of his other, curiously more popular work in other musicals (sorry PHANTOM and CATS fans, but I'm totes Team EVITA).

Gently subtle and devastatingly melancholy one moment, regal yet humorous the next, EVITA's music is a deluxe hybrid of operatic, classical, pop, and Latin genre styles that truly reflect the rise and fall of emotions that swirled around the story of its rather complex title character. In addition, EVITA also boasts some of Rice's wittiest lyrics.

For the few of you that are uninitiated, EVITA---whose original Broadway production in 1979 won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical---is a very loose re-telling of the tumultuous and rather short life of Eva Duarte Perón (now played with grace and gusto by Caroline Bowman), an aspirational, driven young woman who allegedly wooed and seduced her way out of abject poverty to grow up and become, first, a famous Argentinian actress and radio star, then, later, the publicly adored First Lady and "Spiritual Leader" of Argentina---before illness fatally cut her life short at the age of 33.

The completely sung-through musical portrays her both as a "fantasy of the bedroom"---able to manipulate men to do her every bidding---and as a saint-on-earth among the poor people of her nation, telling her fellow descamisados that they too deserve to share in the riches of their country, which was only previously reserved for the well-to-do.

Her street smarts, impassioned speeches, and political savvy (and some stuffed ballot boxes, naturally) not only helped secure the eventual election of his former army colonel husband Juan Perón (the distinguished Sean MacLaughlin) to the Presidency, but these traits also helped spurn vile criticism from the wealthy, upper-class citizens who quietly complained about her increasing political power---attained easily with very little opposition despite having such low-class roots.

And despite being responsible for plunging the country into crippling bankruptcy (while still donning shiny, expensive baubles and designer duds for show), Eva's sudden death devastated her nation's poor, who only knew her for her saintly achievements. In her passing, they've lost what they claim was their true caretaker and compassionate representative in the political process. Plus, dammit, the pretty lady handed out cash!

Of course, guiding us through all of these rapid sequences of events tracking Eva's life is the handsome omniscient narrator---and, sometimes, action agitator---Ché (the incredible Josh Young), whose winking asides and snarky running commentary is the audience's window to the alleged behind-the-Dior-veil truth.

All put together, the resulting stage musical is a multi-layered portrait of a deeply complex woman---a knowing sinner posing as a wanna-be saint. In ordinary circumstances, it's a very unlikable character. She's cunning, manipulative, petty, vengeful, even outright mean (her stern dismissal of Perón's live-in mistress was oh-so-cold). But when strikingly presented and skillfully performed, Eva Perón---that larger-than-life persona with a penchant for balcony singing---manages to charm us into submission, just as easily as she did the Argentine masses.

To be honest, the last touring production of the show I saw within the past decade (at the then Orange County Performing Arts Center) was awkward and laughable at best, almost turning me off the show completely (a few repeated viewings of the underrated 1996 film adaptation usually snaps me back up). So, understandably, it was a genuine pleasure to sit through and enjoy this new touring iteration of the most recent revival. Suffice it to say, my expectations were happily smashed.

Like its title character, this brand-new production---directed by Tony and Olivier Award winner Michael Grandage and choreographed by Tony Award winner Rob Ashford---also boasts a fresh coat of theatrical paint to enhance a new, more likable public image. Though the show doesn't really perk up until young Eva arrives, wide-eyed and ecstatic in Buenos Aires, the show itself blazes through the remainder of its story intensely caffeinated.

And although I appreciate that this EVITA zips along with dizzying, efficient purpose, it sometimes stumbles over key points in a narrative that would have benefitted from a bit more finessing (the scenes of her youth in a small town and, later, her "romancing" her way to a better man/better life feel super-rushed and a bit muddled). But this rapid pace gets the all sung-through story, well, rolling rolling rolling... leaving very Little Room for the story---or the show, for that matter---to slow down to a lull.

When the show does purposely slow things down, it does so to highlight a particularly lovely sequence worth spending some time absorbing. Of its multitude of changes, it was certainly a smart decision to add the song "You Must Love Me" to this revival, giving Eva an extra shot at character redemption and empathy. The Oscar-winning song from the film version also adds a much-needed quiet, late-show ballad that illustrates Eva's dwindling health---and, actually, becomes an unofficial, all-encompassing summation of what has motivated much of her life's actions in the first place.

And, of course, it goes without saying that the infamous Act 2 opener balcony sequence---which features the show's most memorable tune "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina"---is treated here with utmost care and respect; it is also helped immensely by Bowman's exquisite, note-perfect delivery, both singing-wise and acting-wise (which reminds me... I would like to personally lobby now to get a cast recording done of this touring company, please).

There's a sort of understanding that Webber's music, particularly in this very show, requires---actually, demands---power vocals and, man, do Bowman and Young come through! Seriously, they have the kind of vocals you just have to hear live (part of me wonders how they can sing like that eight shows a week)!

But aside from the stellar, outstanding, power-packed performances of Bowman, Young, and MacLaughlin, it would be a shame not to mention the impressive featured solo work by Christopher Johnstone as Agustín Magaldi and Krystina Alabado as Perón's mistress as well. And though the upper sopranos sometimes produced some odd-sounding, shrill notes (it very well may have been the sound mix during Opening Night), on the whole, the show's ensemble sang beautifully, particularly during their mournful chants, battle cries, and their ethereal church-like hymns.

Much more lively and yet less opulent than your usual Webber spectacular, this EVITA revival feels much more down to earth and relatable. It's certainly infused with a pulsating realism that I, frankly, haven't seen in previous iterations of the musical. At the same time, it's also much more playful and witty than I remember---perhaps because some of the political machinations dramatized in the show still have eerie parallels today.

But a friendly warning if you're going to see the show... it may take a while before you get some of these memorable songs out of your head... This impressive production performs them so well, they will really sear into your psyche. It won't be easy... you'll think it's strange...

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos from 1st National Tour of EVITA by Richard Termine, courtesy of the Pantages Theatre. Previous page: Eva (Caroline Bowman) addresses the people. This page, from top: Perón's mistress (Krystina Alabado) is kicked out while Che (Josh Young) comforts her; Che and citizens watch the courtship of young Eva to Col. Perón (Sean MacLaughlin); the newly elected President and her First Lady celebrate on the balcony.

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Performances of EVITA at the Pantages Theatre continue through November 10, 2013 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.

Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.

For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.

The national tour is also scheduled for performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, December 10-22, 2013.


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