In addition to sweeping up awards, the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Evita" has at various times picked up criticism for glorifying Eva Peron or, less often, for slurring her.

Actually, as one can see in the excellent production at the National Theater, it does neither -- or both. It shows front and back views -- literally, as the balcony of the Casa Rosada swings around from the crowd's angle to behind the scene -- of an arch- politician so effectively that it makes its audience responsible for both the condemnation and the adulation.

When the title character is ruthlessly shown privately revealing her various strategies for self-glorification, you wonder how anyone could be so naive as to fall for her public character as the personification of love and charity. And then when you see that act in all its glory, as in the moving song "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," you find yourself falling for it. The humbling shock of that alone would make the show important and exciting.

Who are we, after all, to claim to be immune from manufactured images and manipulated responses? We hardly condemn their use any more, being more likely to admire the skill involved. And certainly the theory that our leaders should personify success, using their houses and bodies to display consumer items symbolic of the rewards that supposedly anyone can earn, is not dead.

This cast, one of many around the world, is powerful. Valerie Perri takes the heroine from brash teenager to blazing vamp to charismatic demogogue to the brave martyrdom of a cancer victim, all with Evita's much-mentioned "star quality." Robb Alton, as Juan Peron, is both hilarious and chilling in his unctuousness.

The role of the narrator is identified as Che Guevara with a little historical license, there being no known connection between the lower-class First Lady and the middle- class medical student who began his career as a revolutionary in Cuba after her death. But Anthony Crivello's interpretation, first pure bitterness and then mixed with a sense of the ludicrous, makes sense of it. When everyone else is a cynic or a sucker, he provides an essential commentary.

The direction, by Harold Prince, and the choreography, by Larry Fuller, have been aptly acclaimed. The use of small crowds representing different segments of the society -- the upper class, the military, the peasants, the children -- is peerless. It is unfortunately almost always in competition with a large movie screen, on which relevant newsreels are shown.

And it is the very success here of the dramatic character Evita that creates a fascination with the historical Evita, so that one keeps tearing one's eyes away from the one to see the other.

EVITA -- At the National Theater through November 29.