Evita

The Broadway smash returns with Ricky Martin as Che and a dazzling new Eva Peron.

Arguably the best of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals and the least dated of his collaborations with lyricist Tim Rice, Evita gets its first Broadway revival nearly 30 years after its original smash run. In the hands of director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford, fresh electricity charges through the poperatic 1978 immortalization of Argentine first lady Eva Peron.

The juicy anti-heroine is captured with teeth and claws in a sensational performance by Buenos Aires-born Elena Roger, who might be new to Broadway but became a star in London, where the production originated in 2006. At the risk of sounding harsh, she is physically unprepossessing -- short and beaky -- plus occasionally shrill in voice. But she acts the hell out of the role.

In Eva's thrilling arrival in the big city, "Buenos Aires," Roger exudes such bold ambition, determination and confidence that she grows in stature and beauty before our eyes. It takes chutzpah to step into Patti LuPone's shoes, and Roger has it to spare.

The headline casting is Ricky Martin as Che, the biomusical's peasant narrator and voice of skepticism, who sees through the spotlight-seeking "Santa Evita." His dramatic presence could be more aggressive, but Martin's Latin-pop vocals are a smooth fit for the role, and his relaxed charm and dreamboat looks will yield few complaints. Fans eager for him to bust some serious dance moves have to wait until midway through Act 2, but then he turns on the sizzle.

The real star, however, is Grandage, who brings his stamp to a show forever associated with stagecraft supremo Harold Prince. No director can entirely correct the imbalance of Evita. The first act is dynamite -- who doesn't love a ruthless tart screwing her way to the top and getting an expensive makeover? But the second act deflates as Eva remains more an emblem than a dissection of fame and power. That said, Grandage's driving staging could hardly be more impressive.

From designer Christopher Oram's stately sets and superb 1930s and '40s costumes to Neil Austin's celestial lighting, this is a ravishing spectacle. The use of space is ingenious and the staging regimented and sinuously fluid. And Ashford's dance numbers pack excitement, with endless variations on the sexy moves of the tango. Lloyd Webber and David Cullen's new orchestrations enhance the score's Latin flavors.

Grandage's brisk storytelling in the first act is especially exhilarating. In "Good Night and Thank You," Eva works her way from Magaldi (Max von Essen), the tango singer who is her ticket out of the sticks, through a string of lovers as she scrambles up the ladder. In "The Art of the Possible," officers compete for rank via a power tango in which Eva's future husband, Juan Peron (Michael Cerveris), is the last man standing. And in "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," Eva takes the upper hand in seducing Peron, then swiftly dispatches his mistress (Rachel Potter, whose crystalline vocals are lovely).

While sticking to the iconic template of Eva's presentation to the public at La Casa Rosada, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" works as more than a triumphant visual thanks to Roger's interpretive skill. With subtle strokes, she defies anyone to point up the contradictions of the resplendent newly installed first lady -- economically ruinous wife of a dictator on one hand, maternal champion of the poor on the other.

But the mixed message eventually weighs on a show that fails to dig beneath the surface of its impassioned protagonist. It loses momentum even before she starts succumbing to cancer, leaving time to ponder some of Rice's more regrettable lyrics. "Rainbow High" is a howler, with such rhyme crimes as, "They need to adore me/So Christian Dior me," and, "It's vital you sell me/So Machiavell me." What does that even mean?

Lloyd Webber's music also slips into repeat. And while "You Must Love Me" is a sweet song, written for the moribund 1996 Madonna movie, it seems shoehorned in.

Still, Grandage's robust direction and the vitality of the performances compensate. Cerveris (a haunting Sweeney Todd in the most recent Broadway revival) is as commanding as the second-fiddle role allows, despite being slapped with a wig that makes him look like Udo Kier, and von Essen lends sorrowful yearning to the thankless Magaldi, crooning "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" with gusto.

But this is Eva's show, and Roger holds it firmly in her tenacious grip. Even in death, she's a blazing force of nature. Evita might lack the complexity to fully explore its title character, but the performer makes no mystery of how this calculating woman could have inspired both fierce opposition and fanatical devotion.

Venue: Marquis Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Ricky Martin, Elena Roger, Michael Cerveris, Max von Essen, Rachel Potter

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