News Column

Review: 'Evita' revival makes grand Bay Area entrance

November 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 20--Long live "Evita."

Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford have given new life to the classic Broadway musical with this handsomely mounted 2012 revival. If the pop opera, a tell-all about the life of Argentine first lady Eva Peron, still lacks a compelling narrative structure, there's no denying that this production has more than a little touch of star quality.

This stately revamp of the perennially popular Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical runs through Sunday in its regional premiere at the Center for the Performing Arts, as part of the Broadway San Jose series.

Evita (Caroline Bowman) was a glittering diva, part prima donna, part charismatic leader. Born in a slum, she parlayed her talents as an actress and a social climber into a ticket to power, rising from the deprivation of the streets to the splendor of the presidential mansion on the arm of Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin) She made a point of bringing glamour and excess to everything she did while still framing herself as the defender of the poor. Not even accusations of fascism and corruption could threaten her reign.

It's an epic story that has attracted femme fatales from Patti LuPone (on stage) to Madonna (in the movies). Evita died at the age of 33 of cancer but her legend endures. Loved but some, reviled by others, she remains a potent symbol. On the 60th anniversary of the death last year, crowds mobbed her tomb in Buenos Aires.

Bowman captures Evita's edge and desperation, the grit that always lurked beneath the glitz. Bowman's Evita is as hard as any of the diamonds she wears. She's captivating singing the only truly memorable songs in the score, the pleading "You Must Love Me" (which was written for the film version) and the haunting "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."

The actress touches on naked ambition as well as the hunger for adoration, two qualities that all political figures have in abundance. Evita may have been a princess on the outside but on the inside she was a pragmatist on a grim march to the annals of history. As Evita puts it, draping herself in designer silks and furs (lavish costumes by Christopher Oram) to rally throngs of starving peasants from the high perch of her balcony: "I'm their product; it's vital you sell me. So Machiavelli me."

Her formidable performance grounds the production through some of the thin parts in the story, particularly the draggy second act. She even casts sparks with the narrator of the piece, a sort of Brechtian everyman known as Che (Josh Young).

Unfortunately, despite the heat and light generated by the charismatic Young, the character never quite works as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. His snarky commentary grows a bit tired as the pomp-filled procession of the musical unfolds against Oram's majestic set.

Certainly Ashford's lively choreography, particularly the sultry tango-inspired sequences, lends fire to the arc of this musical, which does not always rise above such flaws such as a repetitive score and some clunky lyrics. Grandage also slides a bit too far into reverential tribute to Evita, a tactic which undercuts her sexy ambiguity as an antiheroine we can't help but root for.

Sometimes the musical forgets what Evita must surely have known. Always leave them wanting more. That philosophy has been fanning the flame of her legacy for all these years.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

"evita"

By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, presented by Broadway San Jose

Through: Sunday

Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, one intermission

Tickets: $31.25-$92.30; www.broadwaysanjose.com.

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