Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s tango drenched Evita has achieved an iconic status that rivals that of its own subject, Eva Peron, the social-climbing, deeply flawed, yet popularly beloved wife of former Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Immortalized on stage by Patti LuPone in 1979 and Madonna in the 1996 film adaptation, Evita has now come to The Kennedy Center as the last leg of a year-long national tour. Directed with steely grace by Michael Grandage, and choreographed with high-kicking athleticism by Rob Ashford, there is no denying the polished craftsmanship of either the singing or choreography. However, with the exception of a few numbers like “Buenos Aires” and “A New Argentina,” Evita is never quite able to blast beyond its tightly rehearsed boundaries into the rapturous experience fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber have come to expect. Still, its excellent music and gorgeous visual impact make for an ultimately enjoyable experience.
To begin with: this cast is good. Like, really good. Caroline Bowman captures Evita’s ambition and her capriciousness, and shows flashes of the magnanimous charm that enabled her to be so adored despite the excesses of her husband’s authoritarian regime. Vocally, too, Bowman shifts easily between sultry ballads and full out high belts, filling the vast space of The Kennedy Center Opera House with her vibrato-rich entreaties that “You Must Love Me,” and in ‘Rainbow High.”
And love her they do, partly due to her Dior-draped je ne sais quoi and partly due to her populist cash dispensing schemes (portrayed in a fun rendition of “And The Money Kept Rolling In”) that remain a hallmark of Latin American strongmen. El Presidente himself, Juan Peron, is endowed with a menacing masculinity by Sean MacLaughlin, who, despite his boot-stomping military brutishness, displays genuine affection for his wife in numbers like “She Is a Diamond.” In the midst of all the melodramatic displays of balcony affection, Max Quinlan provides a refreshing reality check as the cynical narrator Che, who continuously pokes holes in the artifice that sustains the Peron regime.
Ultimately, Juan and Eva Peron are all flash and no substance – a truth supported by Christopher Oram’s grandiose scenic design, which, with its high French doors and Classical columns, evokes the pomp of the Peron’s presidential perch (even as regular Argentinians starved in the streets). As if to highlight the rot lurking underneath the regime’s celebratory façade, Neil Austin’s lighting design is all shadows and roving spotlights, creating a darkly gorgeous cityscape that evokes the cutthroat atmosphere of mid-century Buenos Aires.
In short, all three leading actors in Evita give sterling performances, and, supported by a sharp ensemble, a fine orchestra, and a satisfying visual design, the show remains a well-oiled machine from first curtain to last.
And yet… there was a certain oomph lacking from the particular press performance of Evita I saw last night. Perhaps it was because from where I was sitting, some 25 rows back, the cast’s diction was usually impossible to make out. Contributing to this vocal mushiness, too, was the reverb-heavy acoustics of the cavernous Opera House, which, naturally, the cast has little control over. Or perhaps, after a year on the road, the cast of Evita has become so good at what they do that their performances have lost some of the manic energy of opening night. As well arranged as the show is, visually and vocally, it could do with a fresh injection of adrenaline. There should be a revolutionary urgency to Evita, fueled by Latin sensuality and a feverish desire for political change. It is this passion that I was having difficulty connecting with Thursday evening, and which, if pumped into the show, would surely shoot it over the moon into the realm of masterpiece.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Evita plays through October 19, 2014 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600/(800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.
It’s a Bittersweet Homecoming for ‘Evita’ Stars Sean MacLaughlin (Juan Peron) and Caroline Bowman (Evita) by Carolyn Kelemen.