There’s more than just a little bit of star quality in the touring production of “Evita” that opened Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
The story of Argentina’s beloved and deeply flawed first lady, familiar to most Americans through Madonna’s iconic performance of the role in the 1996 film adaptation, has to rank as one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best. It’s filled with addictive melodies even the most jaded avant-gardist would have a tough time resisting, a central character more compelling and complex than most and a kind of sustained, minor-key urgency that keeps theatergoers perched on the velvet edges of their creaking seats.
This revival, which began in London in 2006 and moved to Broadway in 2012, was criticized during its run in New York for relying too heavily on celebrity casting and for replacing the lifeblood of the show with a more distant and less humanistic approach.
The tour, on the other hand, seems to thrive on this new staging by its original director Michael Grandage and its accompanying design elements. These include an austere set out of Restoration Hardware by Christopher Oram, ice-cold lighting by Neil Austin that casts everyone in some charming variation of a moonbeam, and form-fitting costumes, also by Oram, with as few frills as the production.
Any “Evita” lives or dies on the performance of the title role, and Caroline Bowman does not disappoint. Well, she may disappoint those looking for a Broadway belter who tears into Webber’s notoriously difficult score with reckless abandon. But her uncommonly sensitive delivery, sometimes almost whispering her songs, allows her talent as an actor to shine. She does not merely blat out “Rainbow High” in an attempt to impress us with her vocal range, but injects into it a surprising measure of subtle self-doubt. Likewise, her quiet approach tones down the grandiosity of one of the most grandiose musical theater songs ever written, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
Bowman is in excellent company. Josh Young’s Che, for those who struggled to comprehend or be entirely convinced by Antonio Banderas’ performance in the film, is a welcome change. Grandage has dispensed with the idea that he should resemble Che Guevara and instead makes him into the perpetually snide and cynical voice of the people. Young’s mischievous, confident and consistently funny performance is reason enough to grab tickets to this production.
There certainly are some flaws in this early collaboration between Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Though this is one of Rice’s better attempts at a libretto and contains several clever lines, it’s filled with many of his characteristically clunky ones, too. While the show plots Evita’s rise from obscurity to power with incredible speed and grace, it gives us a less convincing Cliff’s Notes version of her decline and her country’s struggles.
Even so, there is something beautifully quiet, understated and essentially graceful about this production that previous revivals and tours seem to have missed, a soft and toned-down quality that allows the show’s many stark musical punctuation marks to achieve their fullest effect.
We come away with that feeling so rare in touring Broadway spectacles these days: That we got to know a fascinating character, to hear a thrilling score at its best and even to learn a little something about the vagaries of power and politics.
Under the cool lights of this toned-down production, “Evita” still looks like a million bucks.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $32.50 to $67.50
Info: 847-0850, www.sheas.org