The set-up: There are always reasons to revisit Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's operatic treatment of the life of Eva Peron, now burning brightly in Theatre Under the Stars' presentation of this Broadway revival from 2012.
You might want to hear "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" again, or see the iconic image of Ms. Peron, arrayed in sparkly Dior, standing with arms outstretched on the presidential balcony as she delivers the musical's signature number. Maybe you want to see what the dancers can do during the hot "Buenos Aires" samba, or what the generals might do in their musical chair version, "The Art of the Possible," as each takes down the next-in-line until only Juan Peron is left standing - and in charge of the country.
Perhaps you want to revisit the haunting ballad "Another Suitcase in Another Town," where you might find the next Broadway star-to-be singing the ingenue role, as she's bumped out of Peron's bed by the rising, opportunistic Evita.
Maybe you want to see if the spectacle of "A New Argentina" with its chorus of the "descamisados," the shirtless ones, Argentina's lower classes, can match the banner-waving, torch parade so memorable from the Harold Prince original. Some of you may be in a bitchy enough mood to want to test this latest incarnation of "Argentina's first lady" and dare her to top Patti LuPone, Broadway's original Evita in 1979.
These are all good and true reasons to re-visit Evita, whenever she makes a comeback (and this is one Andrew Lloyd Webber show that will always be around for another look), but there is one overwhelming reason to see this version - the performance of Josh Young as Che.
This compact powerhouse, a Tony nominee in 2012 for his Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, is the real deal, a genuine Broadway star. He's responsible for taking this top-notch production even higher. His rich and resonant voice can wail like a rock star or croon like Crosby. His diction is impeccable. Not even the blinding white-heat of Evita can draw your eyes away from him. When he's not on stage, the place is darker. He turns the ironic "everyman" Che, the show's snarky narrator, into the show's heart and soul.
This doesn't turn the musical upside down, so much as right it, keeping Evita just out of our reach, a woman of shady mystery upon whom we can drape all sorts of motives. The creators keep her at arm's length, too, which is one of the show's problems, as Evita is fairly unlikeable, more whore than Madonna, sleeping her way to the top, the ultimate hypocrite, playing to the poor and raking in the cash.
It's an unenviable role, except it's so iconic in Broadway history. It's also difficult to pull off, as the vocal range goes all over the map, from purr to shriek. Caroline Bowman looks great, a bit like Joan Crawford in the early scenes when she's brunette, and she can tango like a pro and sing at the same time without looking winded, no small feat. Compared to the clarity of Young and Sean MacLaughlin's Peron (a second-banana role if ever there was one), her diction is non-existent. I couldn't understand half of Tim Rice's amazingly felicitous lyrics. That is not a good thing.
Although blessed by Sir Andrew's most sustained melodies overlaid with Latin American rhythms and a terrifically sexy beat, and those provocative lyrics from Mr. Rice, the show may be a classic, but it isn't great. It's a "This is Your Life" look at an extremely complicated person and even more complicated political time. Poor Peron has nothing much to do except bump off his opponents and then moon around in the background as Evita takes center stage. This 2012 revival streamlines the bloat from the original Hal Prince production, adds a bit more choreography by Rob Ashford - Ashford's work was also on display at Houston Grand Opera's recent production of Carmen - and looks and moves impressively under Michael Grandage's slick direction, Christopher Oram's Beaux-Arts arched setting and apt costumes, and Neil Austin's pinspot lighting.
The verdict: But without Young's certifiable star-turn as Che, this Evita this time around is more grounded than "High Flying, Adored," as the song goes.
While I'm at it, where is Young's new show? Composers fall over each other to write properties for Sutton Foster (Violet), Idina Menzel (If/Then), and Kelli O'Hara (Bridges of Madison County). How about something for Josh Young? If he can work such magic for Evita, think what else he's capable of.
Evita. Through May 18. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. To purchase tickets, visit tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $24-$121.
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