A major Broadway revival of a show like Evita is bound to evoke comparisons, so let’s get them out of the way first. As a Broadway performer, the pop star Ricky Martin – the one cast member who gets entrance applause in this revival – is no Mandy Patinkin, but he gets the job done. His Che is less subversive than Patinkin’s was, almost entirely unthreatening. But then, the character is mainly a narrator and a foil, there merely to confront Eva Perón now and then with a personalized representation of public opinion.
Martin has adequate vocal chops, more than adequate in his high register, along with plenty of physical energy to fulfill the demanding role and grace enough to win over this dubious viewer. Most important, he’s got the wide popular appeal to bring in the crowds, and more power to him (and the producers who engaged him) for that!
If his Che does suffer at all it is next to Michael Cerveris’s Juan Perón, a smaller but key role that Cerveris fills with smooth, solemn presence and a deliciously rich singing voice. One could almost wish to see him as Che instead, but at least we have him as Perón.
The excellent Max von Essen brings an almost operatic tenor to the role of Magaldi, the nightclub singer who is Eva’s early lover, and Rachel Potter’s Disney-princess voice is a nice match for the role of the Mistress, in whose one (mostly extraneous) scene she sings “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” – a song so sweet it hardly matters that the character was never seen before and is never seen again.
And that brings us to Elena Roger’s Eva. This incredibly demanding role made Patti LuPone a star, and any actress who attempts it has got to be brave, very strong, and incredibly talented, with a wide range both vocally and emotionally. Roger, a diminutive Argentine who has played the role (and others, including Piaf) on the West End but is making her Broadway debut, more than meets the demands.
Evita has great bunches of what is by far the best music Andrew Lloyd Webber ever wrote, some of it quite rhythmically complex, with songs that are both musically interesting and melodically memorable. On top of that, the show is as much an opera as it is a piece of musical theater, told entirely in song and sung text. Eva Duarte, who becomes Eva Perón, the beloved Evita of the masses, is on stage for a great deal of the time, singing, dancing, conniving, glowing, beaming, fading, and dying. It’s a huge splash of a role and Ms. Roger embodies it with sharply honed skills and enormous brio.
Any past “Evitas” are forgotten as we watch Roger’s angelic/demonic version scrap her way from small-town hanger-on to Buenos Aires socialite to the people’s darling as the do-gooder wife of the President. Christopher Oram’s manifold costumes and especially his palatial sets and are at least as impressive as those I remember from 20-odd years ago. The great director Michael Grandage’s set-piece scenes seethe with gravitas, while Rob Ashford’s at times breakneck choreography circulates life-affirming joy and working-class hardship in turn, though the oppressive nature of the Perón dictatorship gets a bit less stress than one might think it would. The European tour sequence, in which huge national-flag banners roll down and then fall to the ground one by one, and the famous Casa Rosada balcony scene are just two of the visual highlights.
The show’s quirks remain. Its operatic format necessitates a certain amount of prosaic explanatory lyrics, but in the context of the song form taken by most of the music, the prosy quality of Tim Rice’s words can be jarring. And the role of Che, meant as a fictionalized version of Che Guevara (who was a very young man in Eva’s time and not known ever to have met her), is a strange beast when done up to be actually reminiscent of Guevara as Mandy Patinkin was, and even odder when smoothed out like Martin’s version, which doesn’t suggest the famous revolutionary in the slightest.
Despite these issues, Evita remains a triumph of musical theater and this production with its fantastic star is every bit worthy of the hype.
Evita is at the Marquis Theatre, Broadway at W. 45 St., NYC. Note: at two performances each week, Christina DeCicco plays the role of Eva.