Thursday, July 5, 2012

Evita: Chipmunks, Kazoos and Wonderstudies

When Evita opened the reviews were quite soft (and had the unintended consequence of making me contemplate Ben Brantley as a disco denizen--shiver).  No one really spoke of Ricky Martin's performance as something worth seeing for anything more than his nice ass in a pair of tight pants, and because of his star-quality, the show was not discounting tickets (grumble grumble).  Seeing this production of Evita did not seem to be in the cards for me...

When I heard Martin was taking a planned vacation in July and Max von Essen would be going on for Che (and the production started offering some discounts), I decided this would be a good opportunity to check out this latest incarnation of Evita.  I had always enjoyed the original Broadway cast recording and was curious.  I had loved Michael Grandage's production of King Lear but was not a fan of his Donmar Warehouse swansong of Richard II (or Hamlet before that).  But I had not seen a Grandage directed musical...

Michael Grandage has staged a beautiful production here with Evita.  Without a massive cast or stage pyrotechnics, he creates elegant scenes to communicate the story.  However, his staging of Che and Che's role in the show was confusing.  At times I felt like he did not communicate the tension between Che's view of events and Evita's very well (especially in Act One).  But it improved tenfold in Act Two.  Rob Ashford's choreography complimented Grandage's direction nicely and had a strong narrative purpose.  Also I feel like I have to mention the lighting design which was really breathtaking at times. 

But clear-eyed direction or even intelligent storytelling means nothing if this story is not well grounded emotionally between Che and Evita.  @MrTylerMartins described Elena Roger's as a chipmunk and that is an apt description.  With her pocket-sized physique, nasal delivery, and unintelligible diction, she's not the typical vision of the charismatic Argentine first lady.  But it would not matter if her singing voice told you a different story.  It doesn't.  She sings through her nose a lot (especially in a dialogue driven songs) so imagine this score as played on a kazoo.  Yet when she sang Don't Cry for Me Argentina it was a lot better and no kazoo to be found.  The vocal kazoo was intermittent--maybe those with vocal training can explain to me the mechanics of this.  Roger's Evita was also woefully underplayed.  She just didn't have the charisma to make you believe she was Evita.  Roger did not convey Evita's calculating nature or powers of seduction convincingly.  She had some nice emotional performance moments in Act Two but it was not enough to carry the show.

On the other hand Max von Essen's voice was gorgeous and he brought heart to the character of Che.  He started out a bit gesture-y (nerves or direction hard to tell) but it went away.  His Che evolved organically from the working class representative of the people who once worshiped Evita to the doubting Thomas that saw her as manipulative and corrupt.  Though he delivered his lines well in Act One, Che's bitter and sharp asides seemed to get lost in this production.  I don't know if it was the direction, the orchestration or what...but Che's lines seemed too small.  Maybe the looming ghost of Mandy Patinkin's Che was too present in my mind.   No one could ever accuse Le Mandy of being small.  But as the show moved on the vision of Che became clearer and von Essen was compelling and moving.

I really liked von Essen's performance and was happy I had waited to see him perform Che.  He carries so much of the production and seemed very much at ease in the role.  And as always it was a pleasure to see Michael Cerveris (with his hand in some sort of ace bandage) who played the thankless role of Juan Peron to the hilt.   I'm glad I did not miss this production even if it was uneven.  And it was a delight to see von Essen get to dominate the stage in this particular show.

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