Evita at Tempe's Gammage Disingenuously Criticizes Superficiality, Manipulation

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The setup: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's third blockbuster sung-through musical collaboration, 1978's Evita, was revived in a new production on London's West End in 2006. That restaging, which ran 337 performances on Broadway last year, began its U.S. tour this fall and visits Gammage Auditorium through Sunday.

See also: Curtains: The Phantom of the Opera Tour at Gammage

According to author Stephen Citron (Sondheim & Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical), Rice became fascinated with Eva Perón, wife of durably on-and-off Argentine president Juan Perón during the early days of his long political career, after hearing a radio program about her in the car when he was running late to something. I guess if he'd been more punctual, the world would have been deprived of this musical, which observation, in its simultaneous naiveté and cynicism, is a fair analogue for Evita's slippery, unsatisfyingly immature theme.

Rice then painstakingly viewed Queen of Hearts (a documentary that had been presented on the BBC), did a bunch more research, and also traveled to Buenos Aires. The result of his collaboration with Lloyd Webber is an emotional, atmospheric show that contains very little specific history. It set more people to Googling on the way out of the theater than I've ever seen. (When similarly frustrated by lack of plot, original director Hal Prince asked for a scene illustrating Juan Perón's rise to power before his first election, and the guys wrote a number in which several almost identically uniformed men play musical chairs while singing "The Art of the Possible," an abstract ditty about strategic ruthlessness, which helps . . . not really much at all.)

The execution: Setting aside what it all means for the moment, there's much beauty and virtuosity on display in this production. Christopher Oram's scenic design places tall windows across the top of a monumental ballustrade upstage that only occasionally represents the iconic Casa Rosada governmental palace. Much of Neil Austin's lighting appears to pour through these windows onto a nearly unadorned stage, subliminally suggesting desertion and decay but also looking aspirational, vaguely like a cathedral but more like a lovely old railway station, appropriate as a backdrop for the comings and goings of glory and public acclaim.

The opening of the show, though it discards the original interrupted-film-screening setting of the announcement of Eva Perón's death, is one of the most spectacular yet subtle sequences. Archival film and photographs blend with live actors as layers fly away, taking us back in time to Eva Duarte's humble beginnings as a bored teenage bastard in a small town. And once we're past the purposely discordant opening "Requiem," rendered particularly shrieky by what Gammage's acoustics do to the choral numbers, William Waldrop's orchestra is a lush, thoughtful companion throughout the performance.

The lighting design, while sculpting a musical that my companion noted "takes place almost entirely in the dark," accomplishes a great deal as it draws focus where necessary, slowly picking characters out of the background as they assume prominence in turn. While Rob Ashford's Tony-nominated choreography is hard to fully appreciate under these circumstances, it's nicely sinuous and shifts seamlessly from movement to dance most of the time -- though if there's such a thing as an excess of tangoing with questionable dramatic motivation, I'm pretty sure I've seen it now. I heard several audience members complain wistfully (because it's no longer news for anyone who's spent decades as a Gammage patron) that they had trouble understanding lyrics. Even the clear, solid stylings of Caroline Bowman's solos as Eva were often reduced to unintelligible pleasant sounds.

It's very possible that, now that the company's spent an evening in the space, technicians will be able to improve the mix somewhat. On the other hand, a songwriting team that expects phrases like "High Flying, Adored" and "Rainbow High" to be comprehensible within the context of English sentences have set quite a task from the get-go.

The lower voices fare better, and fortunately, what concrete narration there is belongs to the role of Che, played by Josh Young (a 2012 Tony nominee for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar). Young walks away with the singing and acting kudos here, bringing compelling musicality, fervor, and emotional color to a difficult part. (Che refers to Evita's heyday as a "circus," which makes the play's overall perspective seem super-ironic to me.)

Bowman brings up an impressive second place. She's charged with playing a real person who succeeded, when she did, by relying on her charm and wit in a time and place where poor women had few other options -- a person whom the libretto defends only half-heartedly as it attempts to transform her from Spiritual Leader of the Nation of Argentina (which is not only her actual, official, exclusive, and perpetual title but which, for better or worse during her short life, she arguably was) into a poster child for her husband's mistakes and the ubiquitous artifice, exploitation, and corruption of political movements.

Given these intricate obstacles, Bowman makes her Evita into an engaging, precariously vulnerable dynamo who's feisty right up until she drops dead. One way of looking at the role is the way Patti LuPone did when she told The New York Times that it is: ". . . a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women." Even if that's not the case, the play doesn't seem to cut this particular woman (who, among other achievements, lent her clout to the cause of Argentine women's suffrage during her seven years in the spotlight) much slack, and it seems far too mainstream, especially 30-plus years later, to legitimately claim that it's shooting for something more meta.

The verdict: If you're a huge fan of Evita, then as far as I can tell, the things you love are present in this production, you've been anxious to catch up on this long-delayed revival, and you might find the updates (including the addition of the song "You Must Love Me" from the 1996 film) interesting. If, like me, you've never seen Evita ("Not even the movie?" my usher asked incredulously), this is a diligently executed version that will get you caught up on your comprehensive musical theater geekery. (Did you know that "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is set in the beginning of the glory days? You could've knocked me over with a feather.) If that kind of thing doesn't matter to you, though, there are more challenging and/or delightful evenings of theater available this week.

Evita continues through Sunday, December 15, at 1200 South Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets range from $20 to $74; order here or call 480-965-3434.

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