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BWW Reviews: Uneven National Tour of EVITA Debuts at PPAC

Andrew Lloyd Webber's iconic Evita returns to Rhode Island this week, opening its national tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center. While the production is solid overall, individual elements never quite mesh and the performance is missing the sparkle it needs to soar.

Evita chronicles the meteoritic rise and untimely death of the highly-beloved, highly-polarizing Eva Perón, first lady of Argentina from 1946-1952. Eva's passing at age 33 rocked the nation, leaving Juan Perón to govern in the vacuum of his wife's larger-than-life presence.

Evita's songs, with music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, are memorable and catchy, but their fragmented presentation makes for difficult storytelling, especially in the first act. Indeed, act one recalls Evita's beginnings as a concept recording, and audiences unfamiliar with Eva's history are likely to lose parts of the exposition in the performance.

Some aspects of Eva's journey feel overly rushed, and that to the detriment of her character's progression. Her introduction to Buenos Aries, for example, transitions Eva from outgoing, ambitious teenager to predatory seductress in barely a beat of music. Juan Perón suffers a similar fate during his first scene in "The Art of the Possible"; the awkward, stylized wrestling match between political contenders is confusing and drags down the production's energy. Evita hits its stride in act two as the narrative is presented and paced more clearly, but regaining momentum is a difficult feat so late in the game.

Though Caroline Bowman is clearly enthusiastic in the title role, Eva's charisma - the magnetism that captivated the hearts of her people and fascinated foreign nations - never has the chance to shine through, and she lacks a needed transformation from mercenary coquette to adored icon. This production focuses so fully on Eva's unchecked ambition that it sacrifices the character's charm and personality, and theatergoers are left to wonder why this "Evita" was so beloved by the people of Argentina.

Bowman delivers solid vocals and good energy in the mid-range songs, but loses stamina in lower keys and struggles in the upper registers. She cuts a queenly figure in the show's best-known balcony scene ("Don't Cry for Me Argentina") and gives her best performance in the second-act number "You Must Love Me," a song originally written for the 1996 film adaptation of Evita.

The tour's leading men fare better with less restricted characterizations. Josh Young stars as Che, the narrator of Evita, and he delivers a knockout performance from curtain to curtain. This production's Che, rather than functioning as an allusion to famed revolutionary Che Guevara, serves as an "everyman" representative member of the poorer classes directly impacted by Eva's political promises. Young is the heartbeat of this production, a powerhouse vocalist with an engaging stage presence. He has great energy, interacts well with both the audience and the characters on stage, and gives clear, crisp articulation of every line and note he performs.

Juan Perón is not the juiciest of roles (in art and life, Evita eclipses the more mellow Perón), but Sean MacLaughlin makes the most of each and every appearance on stage. MacLaughlin has a rich, warm singing voice, and his expression of palpable heartbreak during "Dice are Rolling," the eleventh-hour musical number that depicts the latter stages of Eva's illness, is genuinely moving.

Krystina Alabado gives a standout performance as the Mistress, managing to create a sympathetic and relatable character over the course of her one song, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Christopher Johnstone plays Magaldi - the first of Eva's one-time lovers - well, and adds a properly-theatrical air to Magaldi's tango-singer persona.

The ensemble cast members are strong and they give each song and dance their best efforts. Intimate tango routines - which serve as a cohesive thread throughout the production - work effectively, but bigger dance numbers ("Buenos Aires," "And the Money Kept Rolling In") lack energy given the small company of performers touring with Evita. The limited number of actors proves especially problematic during scenes depicting large groups; even with additional voices piped in for segments like Eva's inaugural address at the Casa Rosada, crowd scenes are a tough sell with a handful of actors on stage. Only Eva's funeral works around this issue, employing clever staging and lighting effects that make the crowd filing past Evita's coffin appear numerous and varied for the entire "Lament."

While many scenes are offered with rather bare staging, Evita has some truly beautiful set pieces. Argentina's grand presidential mansion, the Casa Rosada, has a lovely façade and Eva's balcony extends with a subtle, graceful effect. Rearrangement of the simple suitcases from Eva's "Rainbow Tour" cleverly transition both costumes and props for "And the Money Kept Rolling In."

A soft, continual fogginess on stage gives the entire production a distanced feeling, as though viewing the production through a series of vintage photographs and newsreels, and right at the top of the show, Evita's "Requiem" is poignantly framed by actual footage of Eva Perón's 1952 funeral procession.

Evita plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Saturday, September 14, 2013. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $43-$80 and discounted rates are available for groups of 20 or more.

Photo 2012 Broadway Revival Cast - Credit Richard Termine.

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