By MIKE CHAIKEN
When I saw “Evita” nearly 30 years ago in the West End of London, the production was sparkly and shiny like a ride at Disney World.
Even though the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical was about the fascist dictatorship of a Latin American country and the misplaced adoration for that nation’s corrupt first lady, the musical was a tourist attraction. It almost made you want to be in that universe in the 1940s where the peasants would chant requiems for their oppressors.
And the music in that corporate production was given a “Tops of the Pop” sheen.
Which one of the “tunes” would make the Top 40, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” or “Another Suitcase, Another Hall?”
It was a different world and a different “Evita” then.
After three decades, when the current national tour production rolled into Hartford’s Bushnell on Sept. 23, I wondered how the years would have treated this musical, which was Webber-Rice’s follow-up to their breakthrough show, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Fortunately, this particular production takes note of the gravity of the story. This isn’t love song to Eva Peron and her dictator husband Juan Peron. This time, the audience isn’t the peasantry of Argentina who have fallen in love with the “radio actress” who distracts them from their poverty. The audience is now the narrator, Che, who follows the proceedings with a jaundiced eye and a good deal of cynicism.
This production is very dark and somber. The stage and costumes are full of subdued tans, browns, and blacks. The lighting is moody. The casting is filled with actors who look more akin to a microcosm of the gritty populace of Buenos Aires rather than actors and actresses who merely “look pretty.”
The music and direction builds on the tension of living in a dangerous time, where people “disappear,” enemies are stomped out, financial ruin is right around the corner, and the military is just waiting for the cue to come in and knock in a few heads.
This touring production takes seriously the gravitas of living in Argentina in the years following World War II. And neither Eva Peron nor her dictatorial husband are treated as creatures we should admire.
Yes, we can relate to some of their emotions and ambitions. Yes, we do like them. (After all, this is a stage show and audiences can’t be expected to sit through a performance where every character is reprehensible to the core.) But we wouldn’t want to live under their regime.
The actors handling the leads in this road production all do an outstanding job.
Max Quinlan as Che, who serves as the narrator for this tale, is fabulous. His performance helps the audience like him, and we trust his viewpoint and commentary about the events that unfold. When he needs to be the center of attention, he holds our attention. And he does a great job of fading into the background, when the other performers need to be center stage. Vocally, he handles the complicated melodies and words of Webber and Rice with aplomb.
Sean McLaughlin, the production’s Peron, also does a fabulous job. When he first stepped onto stage, I wasn’t sure what to think of him. Physically, he didn’t “feel” like a dictator. He wasn’t physically imposing and did not look like a “bully.” But then again, neither Napoleon nor Hitler were known for great stature. Instead of physical presence, however, McLaughlin offered emotional presence. He did a great job in conveying the magnetic appeal of the Argentinian dictator. He also was wonderful in crafting a three-dimensional character. When his wife, Evita, began to falter physically, we could feel his anguish. Vocally, like Quinlan, McLaughlin masterfully handled Webber’s and Rice’s musical creation
And as for the Evita, Caroline Bowman? She made some interesting choices as an actor. Her Evita was a troubled soul. She is someone who is searching, grasping for something, and a bit lost initially. She only finds herself when she achieves the adulation she desires. But you can still sense that little girl lost. In her movements and blocking, Bowman’s Evita is someone with— to put it into today’s vernacular— “issues.”
Vocally, Bowman breaks away from the mold of the typical Webber diva. She’s not a Patti Lupone. She’s not a Sarah Brightman. Rather than a theater voice, Bowman approaches the character from more of a pop music direction. She’s a much stronger vocalist than Madonna, who attempted the soundtrack in the movie version of “Evita.” She definitely has some classical training. But there were times, especially in the choral numbers and when the melodies reached into the upper register, where Bowman struggled with the breadth of Webber’s melodies and arrangements. But she definitely had a 1940s starlet quality about her— reminiscent of a Lauren Bacall or a Grace Kelly.
There was so much to like about this production.
Music supervisor Kristen Blodgette did a great job injecting some Latin flavor into this musical about South America. In the original soundtrack, if there was any Latin touch at all, it was camouflaged behind bombast.
Also choreographer Chris Bailey made some smart choices in building many of the dance numbers upon Latin dances popular in the 1940s, such as the tango
“Evita,” like its characters, had once grown corrupt. It lost its way. But with this production about how power corrupts seems contemporary, modern, and most importantly relevant.
I give “Evita” at the Bushnell 3 ½ out of 4 stars.
By MIKE CHAIKEN