Reverent re-creation of 'Evita' suffers from lack of daring

December 03, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Starting with John Herrera's excellent portrayal of the cynical narrator, Che, the production of "Evita" at the Lyric Opera House is distinguished by strong performances and solid chorus work. At the same time, this once-daring musical is missing its edge.

If there were such a thing as a matinee idol revolutionary, Herrera -- with his knowing swagger and resonant voice -- would surely be it. Similarly, in the title role of Eva Peron, Valerie Perri long ago mastered the character's transformation from small-town girl to actress to dictator's wife.

In fact, most of the principals in this thoroughly reputable production have a history with the show. Herrera played Che on Broadway, and area "Evita" fans may remember Perri from Washington's National Theatre in 1981.

For that matter, just about everything about this latest touring version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical looks familiar -- even comfortable. And for a show that was conceived to be as alienating as Brecht, that's unfortunate.

Larry Fuller, who choreographed the original Broadway and London productions, has essentially re-created Harold Prince's direction. Not that Prince's direction wasn't brilliant -- it definitely was.

There's Juan Peron's first number, "The Art of the Possible," in which he and five other Argentine colonels jockey for position by playing musical chairs. Equally clever are the tightly choreographed blocks of Eva's opponents -- the marching military and the snooty aristocracy, who move in a statue-like wedge that is the literal representation of the expression, "stuck-up."

But reverent though this direction may be, the difficulty with it becomes apparent in the first act finale, "A New Argentina." What Lloyd Webber, Rice and Prince were trying to do with this rousing workers' rally was to suck the audience right in with the crowd on stage. By the end of the act, we're supposed to be cheering along with the masses -- only subsequently to realize that, like the crowd, we have been manipulated by a monster called Eva Peron.

In this production, however, the scene feels sinister from start to finish. And it's not just because there are fewer people on stage than in most of the earlier tours. It's partly because, from the beginning of the show, when black banners descend bearing negative images of Evita's photograph, the production seems to be offering an adverse comment on its subject. Mostly, however, it's because the freshness is gone.

When "Evita" was new, Lloyd Webber and Rice faced criticism for supposedly glorifying the wife of a dictator. Ironically, that criticism proved they had done what they set out to do -- they had shown the way scheming, opportunistic politicians can hoodwink the people.

Slick as it is, the production at the Lyric could hardly be accused of perpetrating the same political incorrectness. This operatic-scale musical includes some of Lloyd Webber and Rice's most magnificent work, but instead of merely hauling it out of mothballs every few years, maybe it's time to show how strong the basic material truly is by taking a chance on some original direction.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Evita"

Where: Lyric Opera House.

When: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $20-$42.50.

& Call: (410) 889-3911.

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