South Florida audiences have already been treated to several rock operas this season: “We Will Rock You” spun together the song catalog of Queen with a silly science fiction plot last fall at Miami’s Arsht Center, while the angst of contemporary youth was proclaimed very loudly in “American Idiot,” featuring the music of Green Day, just a few weeks ago at the Broward Center.
Last week, West Palm Beach audiences were pleasantly reminded of the ‘70s British rock-infused scores of a young Andrew Lloyd Webber when the latest touring production of “Evita” pulled into the Kravis Center (and returns to Miami’s Arsht Center later in May).
Like his first two hits, “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat“ and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” this show is clearly a product of a young composer exploring the musical idioms of his generation and who would ultimately dominate musical theater for more than a two decades. Tim Rice’s book and lyrics remain a smart, cynical and timeless portrait of the ambitious actress would climb her way to the top of Argentine politics, while Webber’s score is both dated and dazzling at the same time.
Based on the recent Broadway production starring Ricky Martin and Elena Roger, director Seth Sklar-Heyn offers a spare, tight vision of Eva Duarte de Peron’s life in Buenos Aires between 1934 and 1952. The fast-pace punctuates the meteoric rise of Peron from a fatherless child to ambitious actress to the most powerful woman in Latin America. By the age of 33, she is practically revered by the public as a saint before succumbing to cancer.
Caroline Bowman stars as Eva, while Sean MacLaughlin portrays Peron. Josh Young is Che, the narrator, a sort of Greek chorus rolled into one, is an Argentinian “everyman.” Both men are exceptional. Handsome MacLaughlin commands the stage as the charismatic leftist strongman, while Young is incredibly ever-present, never intrusive, commenting on the action with a rich, heartfelt baritone, especially in the soaring “High Flying Adore.”
Bowman must live up to the memory of a young Patti LuPone, who famously created the role on Broadway, and she struggles to evoke the lust for power and adoration that drove Eva throughout her life and made LuPone a legend in her own right. Bowman handles her character’s signature number, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” well, but lacks the range for “You Must Love Me,” the original song added for Madonna in the 1996 film version and retained in this stage production.
In a show with so few leads, chemistry is so important and somewhat lacking. One of the few sizzling moments occurs as Juan and Eva sing “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” the realization that together they can achieve all of their aspirations.
The cast is rounded out by a dozen chorus members who play everyone from peasants to militant Peronistas. They execute Rob Ashford’s tango-infused choreography flawlessly throughout, even if the dance is more Broadway than ballroom, and harmonize perfectly in hymns to their fallen heroine.
Set designer Christopher Oram’s Italianate neoclassical Presidential Palace, complete with the ubiquitous balcony, serves as an effective backdrop for most of the show, as actors make dramatic exits through various arches and galleries. But, it’s Neil Austin’s creative, backlit lighting design that lends more drama to the production than any of the performances. The story is further punctuated by archival news reel footage projected above the stage, providing both history lesson and a connection to the historic figures portrayed on stage.
This production may not send audiences enthusiastically to their feet as the curtain drops, but it’s solid and imaginative and superior to any community theater production you’re likely to see in South Florida anytime in the near future.
“Evita” runs at the Arsht Center in Miami, May 27 – June 1. For tickets and show times, go to Arsht.org. Kravis on Broadway concludes its season at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach with “Million Dollar Quartet,” April 29 – May 4. For tickets and show times, go to Kravis.org.