Theater Review: Evita Stumbles at The Kennedy Center

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The seven-time Tony Award-winning Evita has returned to The Kennedy Center in an extended engagement running Sept 30 – Oct. 19. For some reason I’ve never had a particular desire to see this, nor listen the the soundtrack, and that includes the 1996 movie starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. But given a musical directed by Tony and Olivier Award winner Michael Grandage and choreographed by Tony Award winner Rob Ashford, with lyrics by the great Tim Rice and music by the even greater Andrew Lloyd Webber, it’s time that I cross this show off my musical bucket list.

Narrated by Che (Max Quinlan), Evita delves into the life of former Argentinian first lady Eva Peron. Starting from nothing, hooking in the streets, then somehow becoming a famous actress and eventually marrying the man who would become President, she’s credited with bringing Argentina to the forefront of international politics until she eventually died from cancer. The production tells her story in a sometimes non-linear fashion with some weirdly staged flashback and flash-forward sequences.

Caroline Bowman does a really nice job as she transitions from young dark-haired Eva to a sophisticated blonde bombshell. She does a beautiful, moving version of the show’s most famous song, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” It is such a powerful number that it is almost impossible not to get swept up in the emotion of the song, no matter who does it, really. While Bowman doesn’t quite knock it out of the park, she certainly hits an inside-the-park homer.

 CAROLINE BOWMAN (Eva); JOSH YOUNG (Che) & SEAN MacLAUGHLIN (Perón) in the National Tour of "EVITA" by TIM RICE and ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER; the Tony Award®-winning musical directed by MICHAEL GRANDAGE and choreographed by ROB ASHFORD; PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine; photo call: Tuesday, September 10, 2013; 1:00 PM at the Providence Performing Arts Center; Providence, Rhode Island; Photograph: © 2013 Richard Termine  PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine
CAROLINE BOWMAN (Eva); JOSH YOUNG (Che) & SEAN MacLAUGHLIN (Perón) in the National Tour of “EVITA” by TIM RICE and ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER; the Tony Award®-winning musical directed by MICHAEL GRANDAGE and choreographed by ROB ASHFORD; PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine; photo call: Tuesday, September 10, 2013; 1:00 PM at the Providence Performing Arts Center; Providence, Rhode Island; Photograph: © 2013 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

Zachary Borovay’s production design is nice, but not much stands out about it. There is a really nice restaurant set piece, and I did love the staging during “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” Since the story is based in Argentina, it delivers on the sexy tangos thanks to choreographer Chris Bailey, and Christopher Dram’s Scenic and Costume Design work does not disappoint. At times the colors popped off the stage.

I’m not going to blame Quinlan (Che) nor Sean MacLaughlin (Peron) for not having much stage presence. The usually reliable team of Rice and Webber fails here. Without any dialogue, the lyrics and music become even more important. Eva’s story is complex and involved and the music/lyrics needed to walk a fine line between streamlining it for folks who may not know anything about Eva’s history and dumbing it down too much.

There’s just something about this score that doesn’t connect with me. It didn’t feel like there was enough variety in the music to keep me really interested, and a show like this requires maintaining intense focus. I honestly feel like I should see the show again and listen to the cast album on Spotify to get the nuances that I somehow missed during this production. Fans of Evita will most likely be very happy with this production, but this isn’t the type of show you take someone who doesn’t like musicals to, and I felt like I needed to read up on my Eva Peron history to get more appreciation of it.

Evita is at Washington, DC’s The Kennedy Center through October 19, 2014. Visit Evita On Broadway for ticket information.