Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Mid Flying Enjoyed: Even on a Not-Quite-Rainbow-High Tour, 'Evita' Still Shines as Webber's Masterwork -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A national tour presented by Broadway in Chicago
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 6

More than not, I like Andrew Lloyd Webber and many of the musicals he's composed.

Although I trace the maturity of my musical theater appreciation directly to when I came to prefer Stephen Sondheim and other brand-name contemporaries such as Kander & Ebb and Boublil & Schönberg, it's not like I regard Sir ALW as a hack.

I've seen 10 of his shows--including London premieres of lesser-knowns like The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White--and earlier this year, a revue, in whose review I opined about him similarly.

While the record setting, still-running-on-Broadway-and-in-the-West-End Phantom of the Opera is his most successful show--and likely to many his greatest achievement, perhaps followed by Cats--I greatly prefer Evita (followed by Sunset Blvd.; see this list of My 100 Favorite Stage Musicals).

Whereas the best songs in Phantom--"Music of the Night," "Think of Me"--and Cats--"Memory"--are rather overt, I like how two of Evita's finest--"Another Suitcase in Another Hall" and "High Flying Adored"--are sublime in a much more subtle way. And even "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" doesn't reach for the rafters until near the end.

Currently playing at Chicago's astonishing Oriental Theater through Sunday, the latest touring production of Evita is derived from the 2012 Broadway revival that starred Elena Roger in the title role and Ricky Martin as Che, the narrator. 

Reviews in New York were generally tepid and the run lasted less than a year. The touring version, though featuring an Equity cast, is presumably scaled down from there, in terms of production values and, possibly, performance quality.

So though the score of Evita is good enough for me to likely relish a solid high school, college or community rendition--and considerably more than not, this version--here the source material outshines the production and any particular performances.

A year ago in Chicago, I saw the very first public performance of the Tony-winning Kinky Boots, in which Caroline Bowman was an ensemble member I likely hardly noticed. Now she is starring as Evita--a.k.a. Eva Peron, an Argentinean First Lady revered for her style and lionized after dying young--which is quite an impressive leap. 

Even through binoculars from the top of the balcony, she looked lovely but seemed to be acting her role--with something of a doe-eyed naivety--rather than truly inhabiting it with a steely verve. Her singing voice was pleasant but not spine-tingling distinctive or powerful like the role's Broadway originator, Patti LuPone.

Sean MacLaughlin's Playbill credits suggest he is older than he looked, but though well-sung, he didn't seem perfectly-suited to embody Juan Peron, Eva's husband who rose from military leader to Argentine president in the mid 1940s (when he was already 50).

Josh Young was the best of the three stars as Che, but even he didn't have me going "Oh, wow!"

The musical moved quickly, and was never less than tuneful--the chorus numbers, such as "A New Argentina," sounded terrific--and though not the best, this production serves as a worthwhile introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Evita.

Frequent early Webber collaborator Tim Rice wrote the lyrics, and I find many to be tremendously sharp, such as this couplet from "Rainbow High":
"I came from the people,
they need to adore me
So Christian Dior me
from my head to my toes"
And unlike most biographical musicals, many of which require acquiring rights from the subject's estate, Evita refreshingly isn't a hagiography.

Through the sardonic Che--himself based on a real-life figure not as uniformly noble as his oft t-shirted image might imply--Webber and Rice poke at many of Eva's flaws & foibles, and even those of her adoring public.

In a variety of ways that, IMHO, Andrew Lloyd Webber never topped, Evita really is a superlative piece of theater.

But though rather pleasurable and well-worth recommending, this production of it--which somehow just seemed to have a slight sheen overall--isn't quite.

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