The immortal Eva

Twenty years on, the Webber/Rice musical still can draw a crowd

BEFORE CATS, BEFORE PHANTOM, before that huge mansion came thunking down on the stage of Sunset Boulevard, there was a happy time when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber actually had something approaching a critical reputation. Or perhaps it was always the reflection of his very clever lyricist collaborator Tim Rice that was lighting up Webber's satellite. But whatever the case, Evita has always struck me as an exceptional musical, the sort of thing that Stephen Sondheim could have pulled off if he were not so chronically pessimistic.

Evita

Paramount Theater

ends May 9

Evita, which charts the inexorable rise and early death of the wife of the Argentine dictator Juan Peron, is an oddly satisfying hybrid of several classic plot lines, in which the aspiring chorus girl of 42nd Street turns into Lady Macbeth and rises from star to king-maker before dying from one of those Hollywood movie diseases. In Evita, her life story is watched from the sidelines by, of all people, Che Guevara, who grew up in Argentina but regrettably had no historical meeting with Eva Peron. It's still a great idea, though, and its diminishment in the recent film version starring Madonna was just another example of that film's depressing literalism.

While the producers of this 20th-anniversary production of Evita claim that it features a much more authentic Latin American staging, the only place you'll notice it is via a couple of tango-ish dance numbers and in the way the entire cast pronounces "Argentina" as "Arhentina." Any other changes from the original Hal Prince production seem to be minor—in the realm of new set pieces and costumes, which unfortunately undercut some of the effective minimalism of his original vision.

Two actresses share the role of Evita, so to be charitable I'll assume I saw the B version (though she gets the higher billing). With a thin voice that gets almost screechy on the high notes, there's something chronically underpowered about Natalie Toro's performance. She seems to be aware of this, as she repeatedly pushes herself towards the audience, arms outstretched, hands grasping, as if attempting to physically pull them out of their seats.

Raul Esparza, on the other hand, is an entirely dandy Che, filled with exuberance, just the right touch of cigar-tapping world weariness, and the sort of sexy Latino allure ("Yum!" opined my date) that made his historical counterpart such an appealing poster on college dorm rooms. In fact, if the original Che had chosen a career on Broadway instead of as a military foe of economic oppression, he might have brought a similar energy to the stage.

Webber's music, as usual, is derivative, but at least he's borrowing from some interesting sources. There's the occasional wailing guitar from its "rock opera" roots that sounds pretty hokey 20 years on, but the music is supported throughout by Rice's cogent and witty lyrics, particularly in a wonderful romantic duet to enlightened self-interest, "I'd Be Good for You." Sex and politics have rarely been treated with such lucidity on the musical theater stage, and contrary to expectations, Evita is still looking pretty good after all these years.

 
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