“Who would underestimate the actress now?” is asked of the titular character in the revival of Evita, currently in performances at the Marquis Theater.
Well, one person, at least. That would be me.
The Broadway revival of the musical about the life of Eva Peron is successful in many ways. The set is stunning, the dancing is engaging and two of the three lead actors are excellent. Sadly, the titular role, played by Argentinian actress Elena Roger, is an enormous disappointment. And when the most important character of the musical fails to engage the audience, the rest of the show, no matter how well-done cannot succeed.
The bio-operetta with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, follows the life of Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina. The original productions, starring Elaine Paige in London and Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin on Broadway, were famed for elevating its principals to stars as well as Harold Prince’s Brechtian staging that emphasized the turbulent political story which paralleled the emotional one of the leading lady. This revival, directed by Michael Grandage and starring Argentinian actress Elena Roger as well as pop star Ricky Martin and Broadway veteran Michael Cerveris, is a softer, gentler take on the story of brutal ambition and fame. Unfortunately, it does not engage or captivate the audience due to the disappointing performance in the starring role.
Roger, who first played the role in London in 2006, simply does not have the voice for the part. Eva Peron is a vocally demanding role, but Roger’s voice is sharp and nasal, and she resorts to shrieking, rather than singing, many lyrics. We first meet Eva as a teenager who romances a traveling musician, asking him to take her to Buenos Aires when he travels there to perform. (The musician, named Migaldi and is played to perfection by Max von Essen, who breathes life and depth into a role that could easily be dismissed as a stereotype.)
The extremely short and slender Roger depicts Eva’s energy and determination well, but she lacks the sexual allure necessary for the character. Eva sleeps her way to the top of the city, as portrayed in the amusing song “Goodnight and Thank You,” but she never registers as an especially sexual woman. Her first duet with Colonel Juan Peron (Michael Cerveris) is supposed to be a musical seduction, but she sings it in a brisk, business-like manner, striding about the stage. It is not until Cerveris steps in that the song takes a much more interesting – and pleasurable – turn.
Thank goodness Cerveris steps in when he does, breathing some real life and energy into the show. As Peron, the army colonel who then ran for President of Argentina on a populist platform, he does not play the dangerously power-hungry man portrayed on history books. Instead, he is extremely charming, charismatic and sexual, and one can understand why his young mistress (beautifully underplayed by Rachel Potter) cared for him and why the country rallied behind him, hoping for “A New Argentina.”
Singer Ricky Martin returns to Broadway as Che, the omniscient narrator that serves as a one-man Greek chorus commenting on Eva’s life. Supposedly based on Che Guevara, and dressed in army fatigues in the original production, Martin’s Che is more of an everyman. Dressed in street clothes, and with what seems to be a permanently arched eyebrow, Che’s commentary is wry and amused by Eva rather than angry and enraged by her actions. Martin is clearly comfortable onstage and sings and dances well, both with the chorus and alone. While I occasionally longed for the pulsing energy of a revolutionary, rather than a detached narrator, Martin’s attractively relaxed presence was welcome onstage throughout the show.
And what a stage it is. The set, designed by Christopher Oram, is classically beautiful and efficiently transformable, one moment resembling a train station and the next looking like the interior of a chapel (an appropriate setting for a show examining an intense case of celebrity worship), and the next moment the exterior of an apartment. Neil Austin’s expressive lighting only enhances the beauty and ambiance of a very dark and serious show.
Despite its beautifully performed upbeat Argentinian music, supervised and conducted by Kristen Blodgette and numerous, glamorous, costume changes, Evita is a very serious musical about power and the abuse of it. The political and economic climate of Argentina is referenced in the song lyrics, and Rob Ashford’s energetic choreography also depicts the turbulent emotions of people who desperately want change to come to their country. “A New Argentina,” the powerful Act One closing anthem pleading for a new government was especially reminiscent of the attitude in America before and immediately following President Obama’s election in 2008.
The 2008 election did represent change to many Americans, both in terms of race and gender, which is a topic Evita explores. The musical bluntly examines the price women pay for ambition and power, and while it was written several decades ago and takes place several decades before that, many of the questions Evita inspires regarding women and careers, and women ad politics, are still asked about women today. Even when sung well, Eva is never a very likeable woman, which inspires the question of if an ambitious woman can be well-liked – and if that matters. In the first act, Magaladi warns her, “Eva, beware your ambition/It’s hungry and cold, can’t be controlled/Will run mad…” One wonders if Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin will be the subject of musicals in a few decades.