¡Qué sorpresa! The revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (Marquis Theatre) is a basically dull event. Apparently startling to Broadwayites, the news comes as no surprise to me: I thought the work a drab one the first time around, in 1979. Back then, though, it had two big advantages: a production, by Hal Prince, that supplied both a historical context and a striking set of illustrative images; and a trio of lead performers who could look, sing, and act their roles with intense, energetic conviction.
Don’t mistake this for a sermon on how things have declined since the good old days: Those days were bad enough to overrate Evita wildly. The mistake of director Michael Grandage’s new production stems from the inherently virtuous notion, rare in the bad old days, that a work’s writing and composing should be able to stand on their own, without fancy distraction or contextualization. In Evita’s case, Grandage simply happens to be wrong.
Evita chronicles, superficially, the stages of Eva Duarte’s rise from rural poverty to become the glamorous wife of Argentina’s president, Juan Perón. Like her husband, “Evita” was a populist paradox, part demagogue, part fame-seeker, and part humanitarian. Her actual years of glory were few: Perón was elected president in 1946; Evita died in 1952. Rice and Webber seem mainly interested in debunking her: another publicity-hungry demirep screwing her way to stardom. In fact, she and Perón did much genuine good, regrettably mingled with mismanagement, corruption, and tyranny.
Eva’s equivocal achievements get little expression in the dialogue-less work’s score. Rice’s lyrics, though often carefully versified, run down into flat, prosy reiteration; Webber’s Latin-flavored melodies similarly begin well before trickling into bland recitative. Made for an album, Evita has no inherent dramatic build. Grandage gives it mostly squarish, predictable blocking, which his choreographer, Rob Ashford, fills out with dancing that’s decorative, though often attractively so, rather than incisively apt.
Neither Grandage nor Ashford seems wholly able to animate the three stars. Che, formerly Che Guevara, has become an anonymous narrator, to whom Ricky Martin grants only a pallid handsomeness, until he finally cuts loose in superb dancing. Michael Cerveris, normally an actor of acute, intelligent fervor, provides a distressingly blank Perón. Elena Roger, the Evita, also has superb dance skills, plus tireless energy and pizzazz; her singing and acting produce less happy results. Overall, the evening suggests that the title may derive from the French verb eviter: “to avoid.”