On Christmas night, thanks to my brother, I finally got to see the revival of “Evita” that has been running on Broadway since last spring.
It’s an enjoyable production — with fine performances by Ricky Martin and Michael Cerveris in the male leads — but it felt like a flashback to a difficult time on Broadway when American musical theater artists went into eclipse, and Brits like Andrew Lloyd Webber basically took over the scene for a couple of decades.
The shows by Webber and other British producers and directors were blockbusters that kept theaters open and actors gainfully employed, but they left little room for that hallmark of American musical comedy — fun.
“Evita” opened in London in 1978 and on Broadway a year later, kicking off a series of hits that would include “Cats,” “Les Mis,” “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
These pop operas used eccentric source material — to say the least — but none was as oddball as “Evita,” about Eva Peron, the glamorous wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron.
The show got by in the late 1970s on the power of its best tunes — especially “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” — the sensational staging by Harold Prince (coming off a decade of landmark Stephen Sondheim shows), and a star-making performance on Broadway by a virtually unknown Patti LuPone (assuming the role played by Elaine Page in London).
The great Prince/LuPone flim flam disguised the fact that the creators of the show — Webber and lyricist Tim Rice — were so afraid of being charged with glamorizing a very questionable woman that they created the only musical that seems to hate its own subject matter.
Instead of focusing on Eva, the musical is “told” by a narrator — an elaborately costumed and made-up Che Guevara in the original production; in the revival just a handsome guy (Ricky Martin) identified as “Che” in the Playbill — who keeps interrupting the story to tell us what a slut and a thief and a self-mythologizer the title character was.
LuPone was so strong in the original New York production that she rolled right over the absurd caution of Webber and Rice, becoming an astounding “monster” in the tradition of Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate.” When in the second act Eva is struck down by cancer, LuPone made audiences weep during her reprise of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
The revival features an Argentinian actress Elena Roger, who plays Eva the way Webber and Rice see her, as a hard little number who pulled the wool over the eyes of an entire nation.
Roger looks tiny on the vast stage of the Marquis Theatre and her high-pitched singing is not easy on the ears. As the performer strutted around the giant sets, supposedly scaring and intimidating everyone around her, I kept thinking of that great line George Sanders delivers to Anne Baxter during one of her nastiest moments in “All About Eve” — “You’re too short for that gesture.”
When Roger’s cancer-ravaged Eva delivers her reprise of the show’s big number, you almost expect one of the peasants to shout, “Who the hell is crying?”
Say what you will about Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, but they never created self-hating musicals.