By Jordan Wright (Photo/Richard Termine)
When we discuss Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber we are entering the pantheon of the most beloved collaborators ever to hit the stage, and their blockbuster “Evita” certainly is one of their finest and most memorable shows.
Drawing on the talents of the award-winning duo of director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford to present the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts brings this reinterpretation of the original Broadway production to new heights. It is simply smashing.
There is so much to say and so many to give credit to, but I must start with lighting designer Neil Austin and projection designer Zachary Borovay. Together, they create a mood that reflects the period.
It is 1952 and the funeral of Eva Peron. Considered the spiritual leader of the people of Argentina, she became a highly controversial figure.
The curtain opens to reveal old newsreels projected upon the backdrop. The first lady, who had risen from a life of poverty by her wits, beauty and a series of ever-more influential lovers, had achieved her greatest success by marrying Juan Peron.
A haunting black-hooded, candle-lit chorus is chanting a requiem for her through a smoky blue haze. It is a very dramatic opening, both ghostly and reverential.
The scene then shifts to a lowly tango hall in the provinces where Eva, at age 16, became a nightclub singer with dreams of a life in Buenos Aires. The shabby spot is lit with strings of bare light bulbs and bathed in sepia. The scene seems to take place in a vintage photograph.
In a later scene Austin uses chandeliers to evoke the period. Costume designer Christopher Oram completes the theme by providing muted-colored retro dresses for the women, which references the drab shades worn during the Depression era.
Caroline Bowman is riveting from the moment she enters the stage as Eva. Captivating and lithe, she boasts a voice that is strong, fluid and totally capable of the huge range expected by the part.
But why do her low notes disappear and the high notes come across as screechy? When the dialogue begins, everyone sounds garbled. If you didn’t know the lyrics or the story, you would struggle to understand what they are singing or — for that matter — saying. I can’t explain it, but others around me in the orchestra section were having the same reaction to the poor audio.
One can only hope it will be corrected by the time you read this review.
Yet there’s no denying the magic on stage. The fireworks between Eva and Juan (Sean MacLaughlin) begin with the song, “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.” By the time the next number, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” is sung, Eva and Juan have formed their alliance, for better or for worse.
“One has to admire the stage management,” Che sarcastically remarks before Eva arrives onto the balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. In one of the show’s most heartrending and popular songs, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” we witness first hand her narcissistic manipulation as she cannily humbles herself to the adoring crowds.
Max Quinlan is brilliant as Che, Eva’s protector and reality check. In his memorable duet with her, “High Flying, Adored,” which reflects the time when she is at the height of her popularity, he warns, “Don’t look down. It’s a long way.” Eva ignores his sage advice and her megalomania gets the best of her.
I’d quote her reaction if only I could have heard it.
Yet the orchestra is fantastic, the set designs are killer and the music is heaven on earth. See it, love it, adore it — and try not to sing out loud.
“Evita” runs through October 19 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.