The Warner Theatre, which seems to be getting both the best and the worst of the touring musicals these days, has one of the best with "Evita."
Here is solid evidence, if evidence be needed, that a road company doesn't necessarily have to be a corner-cutting knock-off of a show that once worked on Broadway. Second or third time around can be just as potent as the first. (You may have been wondering after such recent Warner retreads as "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Fiddler on the Roof.")
With Florence Lacey as a decidedly gutsy, even lascivious Eva Pero'n, and Tim Bowman as that ideological gadfly Che Guevara, this "Evita" is leading from strength. It has the discipline of a drill team and the fervor of a street riot. The only concessions to the road that I could detect were in the multimedia effects--slides, where the original production sometimes used newsreel footage of the Pero'ns--and frankly that's not all that much of a comedown.
But the real surprise of this production, scheduled to play through Nov. 20, is that Tim Rice's lyrics are not merely audible, but crystal clear from beginning to end. That's not a claim the original Broadway production could always make, and it certainly wasn't the case when "Evita" played the National Theatre a couple of seasons ago. Admittedly, we are not talking higher criticism here. But the assumption that you are going to hear touring shows at the Warner over the snap, crackle and pop of electronics is not one that can be automatically made.
"Evita," however, comes with a top-notch sound system and the result is to put Rice's lyrics on equal footing with Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. There's more succinct wit and quick irony to the words than you may remember. Harold Prince's staging certainly remains one of the directorial triumphs of the past decade, but with the words in such sharp focus, the astonishing visual metaphors he employs seem even more telling than before.
If "Evita" continues to tantalize us, I suspect it's because the show is willing to be of several minds about that scrappy lady, who rose from provincial middle-class obscurity to become Argentina's first lady. "A cross between a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint" is the way she is described at one point. Calculating, driven and greedy she may be. But the musical also grants her a bigger-than-life "star quality" and admits that she may well have been "a diamond" in the dull gray lives of Argentina's downtrodden. In brief, the portrait is richer for the ambiguities the show refuses to resolve.
Lacey plays the role with considerable flair, energy and skirt-snapping sexual urgency. It's a performance that has no difficulty filling up the vast reaches of the Warner. As Che, Bowman buzzes all over the stage, his eyes burning like gas jets, as he spits out his scorn for Eva's excesses. "Waltz for Eva and Che" pits them face to face, one disdainful and superior, the other angry and derisive, and both pretending to be representatives of the people. The match may be a draw, but the number is definitely a second-act highlight.
John Leslie Wolfe is properly ominous as Juan Pero'n, the beast to Eva's beauty. Patricia Ludd acquits herself sweetly as Pero'n's young mistress, ousted with a mere flick of Eva's wrist. And Michael Licata, as the second-rate nightclub entertainer who is Eva's first steppingstone to the big time, comes lacquered in sleaze. But the work of the ensemble is fresh and pointed, too. Someone is keeping a watchful eye on this production and making certain that all the little erosions are checked long before the curtain goes up.
If by some rare oversight you haven't seen "Evita," this is as good an opportunity as ever. On the other hand, if you already have strong memories of the show and are afraid to risk them on another production, rest assured: They'll be in safe--and talented--hands.
EVITA. By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Directed by Harold Prince. Sets and costumes, Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth; lighting, David Hersey; sound, Abe Jacob; musical director, Kevin Farrell. With Florence Lacey, Tim Bowman, John Leslie Wolfe, Michael Licata, Patricia Ludd. At the Warner Theatre through Nov. 20.