Elton John took a very public swipe at fellow countryman and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, telling a reporter in 1996: “I want to do a musical movie. Like Evita, but with good music.”
If Webber’s score for the musical about the life of Eva Perón disappointed John, the Kennedy Center audience certainly did not agree last Thursday night. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford’s production, the first new Broadway production of the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical since it debuted on Broadway more than 30 years ago.
With the exception of two cacophonous clunkers – “The Art of the Possible” and “Dice Are Rolling” – Evita’s score is as melodic and memorable as any other by the composer who brought us 1982’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (about biblical Joseph, his father Jacob and his 11 fratricidal brothers), 1986’s The Phantom of the Opera and 1994’s Sunset Boulevard.
Just as Webber’s film-noir score for Sunset Boulevard draws the listener right into 1950s Hollywood, his Latin-infused songs for Evita, complete with tangos and pasos dobles, sweep the audience along from the dusty village of Los Toldos where Eva Duarte (Caroline Bowman) was born to the balcony of the Casa Rosada (literally, the “Pink House”) in Buenos Aires where the former actress reigned from 1946-1952 as first lady and de facto vice president to Col. Juan Perón after their marriage one year earlier.
It is from this balcony (blue here, not pink, for some reason) that Eva – hero and spiritual leader to Argentina’s working class, her descamisados (“shirtless ones”) – sings her famous torch song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” perhaps Webber’s melodic masterpiece. Blonde locks pulled back, arms outstretched, Bowman certainly resembled the Chanel-clad first lady in that moment, but the singer experienced pitch problems throughout, particularly in the lower notes.
Indeed, it was Max Quinlan who stole the show as Che, the narrator/Greek chorus who serves as Eva’s conscience as she rises to power from “the gutter theatrical.” Quinlan’s tenor is among the brightest and clearest I’ve heard on the Broadway stage, but the sheer sweetness of his voice poses a dilemma for this production, one that director Grandage should have contemplated.
Recall how cutting Mandy Patinkin, as the original Che on Broadway, sounded, when, for example, in “Waltz for Eva and Che,” he sings to her: “How can you claim you’re our savior/When those who oppose you are stepped on, or cut up, or simply disappear?” Further consider how in “She is a Diamond,” Patinkin’s Che rails against corruption and mismanagement under the Peróns:
“What’s new Buenos Aires? Your nation, which a few years ago had the second largest gold reserves in the world, is bankrupt! A country which grew up and grew rich on beef is rationing it! La Prensa, one of the few newspapers which dares to oppose Peronism, has been silenced, and so have all other reasonable voices! I’ll tell you what’s new Buenos Aires!”
Quinlan is energetic and watchable every moment he is on stage, but his tenor – with its delicate, tremulous vibrato – is better suited to romantic roles. It should come as no surprise, then, that he lists the role of Marius foremost among his theatrical credits; Quinlan was born to play the part of the ardent young lover from Les Misérables.
As such, Quinlan’s Che comes across as more fan than foil to Eva Perón. And, despite her undeniable glamor and remarkable rise from obscurity, Eva Perón was deserving of all the criticism Webber’s show, with a libretto by Tim Rice, heaps upon her – and more. The play does, with the song “And the Money Kept Rolling in,” question the aims and legality of her charity, The Eva Perón Foundation. Further, it accuses her of megalomania. “Try saying that on the street when all over the world I am Argentina!” she bellows to her husband in Act II, when he tries to dissuade her from running for vice president.
But Webber and Rice say nothing about how the Peróns “hid their eyes from Nazis coming into their country” in the immediate aftermath of World War II, said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in an interview.
While Jews lived in Argentina at the time “with no real persecution,” Breitbart explained that, as fellow fascists, the Peróns “made it easy for Nazis to come to Argentina. Perón was certainly willing to accept them.”
Webber’s Evita is a complex show, as far as most musicals go. Even leaving out the Peróns’ sheltering of Nazi war criminals, the libretto takes aim at the Argentine power-couple’s other foibles. It’s too bad that this Che couldn’t pull the trigger. Songs like “High flying, adored” should be enjoyed for their tart irony. Here they are all sugary, fan boy fare.
Evita runs from Sept. 30-Oct. 19 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets, starting at $39, are available by calling 202-467-4600 or at kennedy-center.org.