Evita at Tempe's Gammage Disingenuously Criticizes Superficiality, Manipulation
The setup: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's third blockbuster sung-through musical collaboration, 1978's Evita, was revived in a new production on London's West End in 2006. That restaging, which ran 337 performances on Broadway last year, began its U.S. tour this fall and visits Gammage Auditorium through Sunday.
Richard Termine Evita (Caroline Bowman) feels the love tonight.
See also: Curtains: The Phantom of the Opera Tour at Gammage
According to author Stephen Citron (Sondheim & Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical), Rice became fascinated with Eva Perón, wife of durably on-and-off Argentine president Juan Perón during the early days of his long political career, after hearing a radio program about her in the car when he was running late to something. I guess if he'd been more punctual, the world would have been deprived of this musical, which observation, in its simultaneous naiveté and cynicism, is a fair analogue for Evita's slippery, unsatisfyingly immature theme.
Rice then painstakingly viewed Queen of Hearts (a documentary that had been presented on the BBC), did a bunch more research, and also traveled to Buenos Aires. The result of his collaboration with Lloyd Webber is an emotional, atmospheric show that contains very little specific history. It set more people to Googling on the way out of the theater than I've ever seen. (When similarly frustrated by lack of plot, original director Hal Prince asked for a scene illustrating Juan Perón's rise to power before his first election, and the guys wrote a number in which several almost identically uniformed men play musical chairs while singing "The Art of the Possible," an abstract ditty about strategic ruthlessness, which helps . . . not really much at all.)
The execution: Setting aside what it all means for the moment, there's much beauty and virtuosity on display in this production. Christopher Oram's scenic design places tall windows across the top of a monumental ballustrade upstage that only occasionally represents the iconic Casa Rosada governmental palace. Much of Neil Austin's lighting appears to pour through these windows onto a nearly unadorned stage, subliminally suggesting desertion and decay but also looking aspirational, vaguely like a cathedral but more like a lovely old railway station, appropriate as a backdrop for the comings and goings of glory and public acclaim.
Richard Termine Caroline Bowman and Josh Young debate in 3/4 time in Evita.
The opening of the show, though it discards the original interrupted-film-screening setting of the announcement of Eva Perón's death, is one of the most spectacular yet subtle sequences. Archival film and photographs blend with live actors as layers fly away, taking us back in time to Eva Duarte's humble beginnings as a bored teenage bastard in a small town. And once we're past the purposely discordant opening "Requiem," rendered particularly shrieky by what Gammage's acoustics do to the choral numbers, William Waldrop's orchestra is a lush, thoughtful companion throughout the performance.
The lighting design, while sculpting a musical that my companion noted "takes place almost entirely in the dark," accomplishes a great deal as it draws focus where necessary, slowly picking characters out of the background as they assume prominence in turn. While Rob Ashford's Tony-nominated choreography is hard to fully appreciate under these circumstances, it's nicely sinuous and shifts seamlessly from movement to dance most of the time -- though if there's such a thing as an excess of tangoing with questionable dramatic motivation, I'm pretty sure I've seen it now.