What’s okay about the British-borne revival of Evita is that it doesn’t get in the material’s way. Well, let me amend that: it’s such shallow, superficial material with so little holding it together on a dramaturgical level that it needs all the help it can get. But Harold Prince, the director who enabled its transition from concept album to stage musical in the late 70s, pretty much provided the template that’s provided the glue ever since. And that basic shell hasn’t been messed with much. But within it, director Michael Grandage has naturally sought to apply his own stamp, and while he hasn’t done any particular damage—it’s all good looking and generally quite competent—he certainly hasn’t enhanced anything. Remember that what Hap Prince brought to the party was his own seething political anger as a die-hard Jewish liberal who had lived through World War Two and the McCarthy era. When he staged “A New Argentina” he made it as rousing as possible because he was after the irony of making an audience cheer the onset of Fascism, in the hope that they’d subsequently understand something about the power of propaganda. (I don’t think it ever actually worked that way; I think the audience understood they were watching the rise of a political monster and went nuts simply because it was staged so cathartically. But the point is, the catharsis was borne of rage.) As staged by Grandage, it’s, you know, perfectly fine but without edge.
Symbolic of this edgeless approach is Ricky Martin, playing a character identified as Che but (in returning to the concept album roots) pointedly not Che Guevara. Quite the opposite of the template set by Broadway’s original Che, Mandy Patinkin, who was pissed off at everything, and bit off musical phrases in a manner that was so iconic as to become fodder for easy parody not long after, Mr. Martin seems an everyman bemused by it all, singing prettily: the happy Che. (And he is constantly flipping his hands about in the self-conscious gesticulation-emphasis of one who is simply not a natural or instinctive actor; that the director’s eye has not seen this as a distraction is among the sure “tells” that an eye for larger themes isn’t present either.) For all that Elena Roger is an authentic Argentine star—and, no mistake, sufficient unto the task of putting the role over, albeit without the “star quality” trumpeted by that song—she is also a small, bird-like woman who seems more like the insistent JAP (Jewish American Princess) who brute-forced her way into various social cliques in high school, and sings with a rapid warble that happily doesn’t quite channel, but unhappily does evoke the shadow of, Jaques Brel songstress Elly Stone’s brain-drilling vocal technique. As Peron, Michael Ceveris is terrific. But the role is, as it’s always been, thankless.
Rob Ashford’s choreography strikes me as quite fine, and doesn’t ever come off as over-staged and over-busy, as some of his work in the recent revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed did. But the again, there’s not much content to speak of in Evita, which—quite apart from any inherent showmanship—is a shallow, snarky, smartass, openly judgmental distortion of history, expressed in sophomoric terms bereft of subtext, subtlety or nuanced character (as opposed to broad archetype). So any excess seems to balance out the material rather than compete with it.
Not much else to say. But why would there be? As established, this is Evita Lite…
I have even less to say about the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, as directed by Des McAnuff, that originated a few seasons ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada (where McAnuff is artistic director). But not because it doesn’t do what it sets out to do quite ably. McAnuff has juxtaposed two impulses—his frequent one, for a certain amount of flashy production glitz; and his less-demonstrated one (these days) for lasering in on character nuance and favoring realistic behavior. One can’t really deliver a choreographed, belt-it-out rock opera—much less one about Jesus that ends with a backlit elevated crucifixion—in terms of verite, but McAnuff takes his cast as close as one dare to slice-of-life. And as with Evita, since there’s not much to the text, the two approaches don’t fight with each other, but create an interesting blend, making the material seem somewhat richer than it actually is.
That said, I personally didn’t feel “the love” that has attended the reputation of this production during Act One. So I was surprised to find Act Two much more persuasive.
How effective you’ll find it may well depend on your Rice-Webber threshold. Mine is moderate but decent enough to have hung in…
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