Sunday, March 22, 2009

Theater review: ‘Evita’-- The same old Argentine song-and-dance

Jodie Langel is compelling as the title character
in Evita, though the Maltz production never gets
inside her head.

By Hap Erstein

British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has gotten increasingly involved in the production of his musicals, which unfortunately means emphasizing the spectacle — the crashing chandeliers, the hydraulic ornate staircases, the roller skating train races.

But 30 years ago, he opened on Broadway what is arguably his best show yet, Evita, a human-scale, albeit pageant-like, saga of the rise and early death of Argentina’s controversial political icon, Eva Peron. Recorded long before it hit the stage, the task fell to director Harold Prince to devise theatrical illustrations to match the songs, an assignment he handled so well that most subsequent productions have readily adopted his solutions.

Still, from the first glimpse of Robert Kovach’s scenic design — a post-modern abstract landscape of twisted latticework, kind of a cross between the Beijing bird’s-nest stadium and I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramids — on the Maltz Jupiter Theatre stage, it seemed to promise a new take on the show, not unlike the company’s recent directorial preconceiving of Barnum.

Instead, guest director Marc Robin is content to settle for a traditional staging, with no discernible new ideas of his own. That said, Evita is a complex show that is hard to pull off well, and the Maltz production is very proficient, in no small part because of the performance of Jodie Langel as that tramp of the Pampas, Eva. The evening, however, is undoubtedly more interesting for a first-time viewer of the show than for someone who has experienced it before.

Eva Peron is an object of adoration and scorn in her country to this day, seen as either a saint who inspired and aided her fellow countrymen or a crook who bankrupted the nation under the guise of philanthropy. Even a cursory listen to Tim Rice’s cunning lyrics reveals that the show is decidedly in the latter camp, but devoting a musical to Eva was originally a source of controversy, second only to the title character in Lloyd Webber’s earlier Jesus Christ Superstar.

Although Eva’s overarching ambition and eventual corruption work against her, Langel still manages to muster some sympathy for the character, despite her icy demeanor. She sings the demanding score with laser-lunged power and admirable diction, displaying what a lyric calls “a little bit of star quality.”

Rice and Webber’s most intriguing creation is undoubtedly a cynical character called Che — possibly, but not necessarily, Guevara — who narrates the action and pricks pinholes in Evita’s image. Rudy Martinez is physically stiff in the role, but he handles his musical numbers with plenty of volume and attitude.

Curiously, the role of Juan Peron, the military colonel who gets pushed into the presidency by his wife, is very sketchy. Aided by his natural resemblance to the man, David Studwell still manages to make a strong impression. The rest of the show is in the hands of the high-energy ensemble, which becomes everything from society swells to well-starched soldiers to Evita’s adoring, though impoverished peasant crowds.

The show’s drawback is that it never sufficiently gets inside Eva’s head to understand her motives. Nor do we fully understand the blind appeal she had to the Argentinians. But that does not stop Evita from being a thought-provoking musical, full of driving Latin tempos and tunes, and true dramatic drive.

At the Maltz, it is entertaining enough, but it would have been more interesting if it broke more with the familiar approach to its presentation.

EVITA, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Continuing through April 5. Tickets: $30-$49. Call: (561) 575-2223.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are way off base here. The production was beautifully staged and the cast was stellar. I could NOT take my eyes off Che. I think maybe you need to take a second look.
Oh-- too bad, you can't-- the REST of the performances are SOLD OUT.