Retooled `Evita' is more Hispanic

Review: The 20th anniversary production at the Mechanic is both more and less than the Madonna movie.

January 15, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Audiences who only know the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical "Evita" from the 1996 Madonna movie will find lots of stunning theatricality in the 20th anniversary production at the Mechanic Theatre.

Indeed, introducing that new audience to this marvelously inventive stage show about the former Argentine first lady, Eva Peron, was undoubtedly one reason for the revival, which has Broadway aspirations.

Theatergoers familiar with the show -- to my mind, Lloyd Webber and Rice's strongest collaboration -- will find many elements unchanged, with a few notable exceptions, not all of them improvements.

The orchestrations have gone more Hispanic, with an emphasis on Spanish guitar, a definite plus. Similarly, the lead actors all have Hispanic heritage, though it is more difficult to pinpoint specific advantages of this choice, beyond the obvious one of political correctness.

Natalie Toro plays Evita as a calculating, ambitious, nearly unstoppable force. Her first conquest, Tom Flynn's sleazy nightclub singer, Magaldi, has her pegged perfectly when he warns: "Eva, beware your ambition. It's hungry and cold, cannot be controlled."

Toro's Evita is always on, always performing -- occasionally in too shrill a voice and with exaggerated facial expressions. In the show's most famous number, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," the intensity of her performance seems to surprise even her husband, Juan Peron.

The sexual tension between Toro's Evita and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod's Peron, particularly in "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," the number when they meet, is another plus. In addition, 20-something audiences will also appreciate the youthful, rock-star-like vigor of Raul Esparza as the musical's cynical narrator, Che. (However, new and improved as the Latinized orchestra now sounds, it occasionally drowns out both Che and Evita.)

Directed and choreographed by the show's original choreographer, Larry Fuller, the revival re-creates all the brilliant scenes from director Harold Prince's original production -- "Goodnight and Thank You," in which Evita uses a revolving door to usher out her string of lovers prior to Peron; "The Art of the Possible," in which military leaders jockey for power in a game of musical chairs; and various numbers in which snooty aristocrats confront a clump of military officers or peasants.

But there's an important element missing. Far from glorifying Evita, Prince always said he wanted the show to manipulate an audience just as she -- and the media -- manipulated her followers. "A New Argentina," the big rally at the end of Act 1, should leave audiences cheering right along with the masses on stage -- only to feel later a frisson of disgust as they realize how slickly they've been used. In this production, partly because of its smaller cast, that frisson never comes.

Instead, this "Evita" will entertain you and frequently even wow you, but it won't give you the creeps the way the original did. And that's a shame, especially nowadays when, not unlike the title character, politicians are falling victim to their own hype, right and left. In other words, though this revival retains much of the thrill, the chill is gone.

`Evita'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. Jan. 17; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Jan. 17, Jan. 20; 3 p.m. Jan. 24. Through Jan. 24

Tickets: $50-$70

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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