'Evita' Soars with a Top-Notch Cast and a Grittier Production

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High-flying and adored, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita lands at the Majestic for a one-week jaunt before continuing its rainbow tour to Houston and Miami. Helmed by British veteran Michael Grandage in an entirely new production, this Evita jettisons the more overtly Brechtian stylistic choices of Hal Prince, and presents a grittier, earthier, more “authentic” narrative of Argentina’s social-climbing First Lady.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t; I’ll admit that I occasionally missed the bite and dripping sarcasm of Prince’s vision, in which the revolutionary Che, as narrator, implements Brecht’s famous ‘alienation effect,’ and forces the audience to interpret the story as a fable of capitalism, corruption, and power.

Grandage’s production is a more subdued, sadder affair: this Che is as much a dupe as any of the other proles on stage, and this Evita is as much as about Evita’s self-delusion as Che’s own disillusion. With some top-notch talent on stage—especially Josh Young as Che—the tour is in good shape, though the sound design seemed oddly muted on opening night. (I’m optimistic that some tweaking will correct things this week.)

The most innovative part of this new staging is Rob Ashford’s terrific tango-inflected choreography, which transforms certain scenes into fantasias on Argentine themes. (This is especially true of the sad tango of Evita’s funeral, and the weirder, yet effective, tango-cum-sumo-match of the army in Art of the Possible.”) Grandage’s use of newsreel projections—designed by Zachary Borovay—gives the production a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, though it’s a conceit that, by the second act, seems ultimately half-hearted and incomplete. (Des McAnuff’s recent Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar—with its neon, CNN-inspired set design—was definitely a love-it-or-hate-it type of show; but you could never accuse it of being less than fully committed to its gimmick.)

Christopher Oram’s set—which reproduces the grey, vaulted galleries of Buenos Aires’ downtown architecture—is monumental but also a bit colorless: it’s another instance in which a dedication to realism is somewhat at odds with the free-flowing form of the narrative.  Grandage keeps things moving along at a quick and exciting clip in Act One; Act Two stumbles a bit with the interpolation of a song from the film (“You Must Love Me”), which isn’t particularly needed, and which comes across as awkwardly staged and inorganic.

Ultimately, though, any Evita flies high (or swan dives) on the strength of its main trio, and the tour has enlisted top-notch talent. Caroline Bowman is a very good Evita: a triple-threat singer/dancer/actress who captures the steely drive of ambitious actress and the increasing desperation of a dying politician. But Josh Young’s sly, bemused Che steals the show from its leading lady: effortlessly gliding between the chorus and center stage, he comments on the action with a simply gorgeous baritone voice—the best I’ve ever heard at the Majestic—and what can only be described as an adorable smirk. As Perón, Sean MacLaughlin acts and sings the part, but looks a bit too young for the role: he was never quite believable as an elder statesman and political mentor. The chorus is certainly game for Ashford’s Latin American choreography, but occasionally needs greater snap and synchronicity in the big dance numbers (particularly “And the Money Kept Rolling In”).

So: this a solid Evita, worth seeing, especially if you’ve only experienced Evita in Hal Prince’s oft-touring original production. This particular production made something of a splash in NYC because of the Che of Ricky Martin, but I suspect audiences for the tour are just as lucky—perhaps luckier—with the Che of Josh Young. It’s worth a trip downtown just for him.

$26-$86, 7:30pm Tuesday-Thursday, 8pm Friday, 2pm & 8pm Saturday, 2pm & 7:30pm Sunday, The Majestic Theatre, 224 E Houston, (210) 226-3333, majesticempire.com

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