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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 megamusical Evita opens with a funeral. Spoiler alert: The first lady of Argentina, whose role has famously been sung by both Patti Lupone and Madonna, has died. What’s notable about this good, but, not definitive, staging of the musical now touring through the Kennedy Center is that in terms of the production’s ethos, the funeral scene foreshadows very little of what’s to come.
“Requiem aeternum dona Evita,” the ensemble chants in the opening scene, wearing dark trench coats and clutching candles. Above their heads, black-and-white footage of Evita’s funeral—human-pulled hearse and all—scroll by on a cinema-sized screen. In touring-musical parlance, this generally indicates a coming multimedia extravaganza. But director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford, who helm this 2012 Broadway revival tour, have more original ideas. Once the music shifts from Latin dirges to rock, the screens never return, and a stately palace portico at the rear of the stage serves as the only major set piece.
Eva Perón was extravagant; this Evita is not. Solid singing, excellent tango dancing, and some good, old-fashioned theater tricks carry the show. Lloyd Webber may be easily dismissed now as an over-Botoxed old man hosting Sound of Music reality shows, but he is a musical genius, and no show demonstrates that more than the entirely sung-through Evita, with the tuneful refrains that keep rolling on in, and overlapping themes that repeat when you least expect them. Tim Rice’s lyrics are funny and biting, often drawing laughs from an audience that, on a recent evening, didn’t seem to know the musical as well as, say, a theater critic who obsessed over the Madonna movie version while in college.
Like the Material Girl, this Eva (Caroline Bowman), doesn’t quite have the crazy-full range Webber’s score requires. Her lower register dropped out once or twice, but otherwise she sounded great, even when called upon to belt while being undressed. “Good Night and Thank You,” the paean to Eva’s rotating cast of lovers sung by the narrator Che (Max Quinlan) was particularly well-staged, with Bowman accepting a succession of dressing gowns as she slept her way to the top, hauling suitors through French doors and then kicking them out onto Buenos Aires back alleys.
As usual, the sound in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House seems slightly off. Male voices at the rear of the stage, for example, didn’t carry over the orchestra as they backed up Krystina Alabado, who was the angel of a kicked-out mistress singing “So What Happens Now?” In latter scenes, the pace felt less frenetic, and yet, the ensemble gained energy. Choreographer Rob Ashford expertly blocked both the ballot-box scene and the charity giveaway (“The Money Kept Rolling In”) so that the cast moved about the stage in concentric circles, occasionally pivoting and creating the illusion of a bustling streetscape with only bodies. And when called upon to tango, the ensemble dancers held their knees at 90-degree angles and kept those character shoes pointed.
The final lament found the dancers swirling around Eva’s hospital bed. The Latin chant recapitulates, and Quinlan tenor floats above the ensemble. “She had her moments, she had some style,” he says, eulogizing Eva. Much less cynically, the same can be said of this Evita. Lots of moments, lots of style.
Photo by Richard Termine; courtesy the Kennedy Center