Through Oct. 19
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F St. NW
Since its London world premiere in 1978 and subsequent global success, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Evita” has been produced ad infinitum.
And whether it’s Broadway’s Patti LuPone or Madonna on the big screen, the woman in the title role ultimately determines each version’s success. Playing Argentina’s controversial first lady who slept her way to power and position and died young isn’t easy — the part is vocally challenging and requires more than a modicum of charisma.
In the national tour of the 2012 Broadway revival now at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Caroline Bowman takes on the part. As the young Eva Duarte, Bowman misses the grit and energy of the provincial teenage dancehall girl — she might as well be playing the naïve ingénue in a comedy of manners. But it’s her turn as the slightly older and blonder Eva in which Bowman excels, skillfully conveying the outsized ambition and complexities churning behind Eva’s calculated façade.
In fact, neither Bowman’s performance nor the entire production staged by Michael Grandage really take off until Eva bleaches her hair.
Told in flashbacks, the sung-through pop opera begins and ends with Eva’s funeral. Young Eva and the musical fable’s narrator Che (Max Quinlan) emerge from a shadowy gathering of mourners and the story unfolds. In fast moving scenes, Eva climbs from poor, illegitimately born provincial girl to radio actress to girlfriend and later wife of military officer and politico Juan Perón (Sean MacLaughlin). Yes, in pursuit of fame and fortune she changes men like underwear but all that stops with Perón. In him, Eva finds her ticket to the big time.
Despised by the bourgeoisie and the military for her low birth and undue influence her husband, Eva finds an adoring power base in the working classes. “I am you,” she sings to them. As first lady, she gains popularity by funding numerous charities.
Her ascent is tracked musically with “Buenos Aires,” “High Flying, Adored” and, most memorably “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which she sings to the crowds from the presidential residence’s balcony. Diamond like in a shimmering strapless ball gown, Eva’s beatification is complete. Not one to miss an opportunity, Perón puts his wife’s charisma to use and sends her on a European goodwill tour. Her Rainbow tour is cut short by the cancer that will soon kill her at 33 in 1952.
Set and costume designer Christopher Oram envisions a gloomy Buenos Aires of soaring colonnades, tall arched windows and heavy doors. His costumes are painstakingly period (‘30s and ‘40s). Most striking are Eva’s balcony scene gown and Dior-inspired traveling suits.
Throughout the show, choreographer Rob Ashford cleverly employs tango in scenes involving mourners, lovers and friends. He even partners soldiers in a more combative variation of the dance.
Lloyd Weber’s score is gorgeously sung by the three principals and Christopher Johnstone as Magaldi, the schmaltzy tango singer who reluctantly brings teenage Eva to Buenos Aires.
Without his trademark beret, Quinlan’s Che is less politicized. He possesses the irony but lacks the fire of a revolutionary. As quietly ambitious Perón, McLaughlin (whom local audiences will remember from Signature Theatre) is terrific. He’s a seductive presence and makes a believable love match for Bowman’s Eva.
Unfortunately an otherwise strong and energetic effort is marred by some audio problems. On press night, Tim Rice’s lyrics were difficult to decipher. Those familiar with the songbook fared best.
Still, this “Evita” is a production well worth seeing.