There are ghosts swirling around the Marquis Theatre, where Michael Grandage’s swiftly paced, deadly serious production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita opened on April 5, and I’m not talking about spectral presences left over from the revival of Follies that played the house this past fall. These ghosts, depending on how much you find them haunting you, may end up hindering your enjoyment of the great 1976 rock opera about the rise and fall of Argentinean first lady Eva Peron.
Said ghosts manifest themselves in different ways. They appear in the memories we have of the performers who’ve indelibly played the key roles in the past, namely Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin on stage, and Madonna and Antonio Banderas on film. Yet they also emerge from our memories of the celebrity we see before us, singing sensation Ricky Martin, who returns to the Great White Way (after a stint in the original production of Les Miserables) to play Che, the chameleonic narrator who guides us through Eva’s life and death at age 33 from ovarian cancer.
While his co-stars, the fiery Argentinean actress Elena Roger and the Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris, receive a small smattering of entrance applause, Martin is greeted with cheers and ear-piercing whistles, an acknowledgement by the audience that they’re there to see him. If that, as well as the post-show crowd at the stage door, is any indication, they were dazzled by the mere presence of the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” singer. I, on the other hand, found it hard not to be let down. He doesn’t give the star performance I expected and the role requires, but then, neither does Roger, an Olivier Award winner for her truly dazzling 2010 performance as Edith Piaf, a role for which she’s much better suited. These roles need stars, and without them, the inescapable memories of past Evas and Ches are among the things that really hurt this production.
Roger, who originated the role of Eva in Grandage’s London revival in 2006, lacks the force and power of Patti LuPone (whose performance I’ve come to know via the original cast album and YouTube clips), an unquestionable turn-off—along with her nasal, reedy voice—for many people from the start. What Roger does bring to the role, however, is an affecting vulnerability and effective determination. Despite a great deal of ambition, her Eva, who rises from small town girl to radio star to major political figure, is filled from the start with self-doubt, culminating in a lovely delivery of “You Must Love Me,” a song added to the stage version after winning an Oscar for the film. As a dancer, Roger is first rate, performing Rob Ashford’s somewhat mechanical choreography, all of it variations on the tango, without even breaking a sweat.
For his part, Martin also lacks the force and power of his predecessors, along with a grip on his cipher-like character. Yes, he sings well, yes, he dances even better (when he’s allowed to break free, only for a few all too brief moments in the second act, he truly comes to life), but Martin substitutes a toothy grin and gesturing for real acting, probably making him the most consistently cheerful Che in the musical’s history. It should also be noted that part of the struggle comes from his not actually playing a character, as Patinkin did in the original. This Che is an “every man,” dressed in cargo pants and a Henley shirt, not “Guevara,” as he once was.
The always reliable Cerveris makes for a flawless Juan Peron, doing the near impossible as he turns this reactionary, generally uninteresting character into a fully-breathing human. In glorified cameos, Max Von Essen and Rachel Potter score—big time—as tango singer Augustin Magaldi (“who has the distinction of being the first man to be of use to Eva Duarte”), and Peron’s former mistress, who gorgeously delivers the plaintive ballad “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.”
A master creator of stage pictures, Grandage, with help from designers Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Neil Austin (lighting), creates a host of images jaw-dropping in their beauty, particularly Eva’s “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” address to her people at the top of the second act. Where his work falters is in its treatment of the material; in short, it completely lacks the humor that can so easily be found within the piece. This is a most unfunny Evita, a severe problem when lyrics like
Did you hear that?
They called me a whore!
They actually called me a whore!
But Signora Peron,
it’s an easy mistake;
I’m still called an admiral y
Y et I gave up the sea long ago
should naturally get laughs.
I do have to admit, though, it was thrilling to finally see Evita live, having listened to recordings so often in the past. The score not only holds up but is treated particularly well under the baton of Kristen Blodgette, with Lloyd Webber and David Cullen’s orchestrations and David Chase’s dance arrangements played by a tight orchestra of 18. And it’s certainly nice to see Roger, whose Piaf was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, make her way to our shores.
It’s just difficult to ignore all those ghosts. Maybe if you do, you’ll have a better time.