You could say N.C. Theatre brought Halloween early last week when it opened one of the biggest hatchet jobs in musical theater, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, on Saturday night. The region hasn't seen this show since 1983. With that—and a Broadway revival slated for 2012—in mind, it's probably a good moment to recall the fundamental problems in the work.
Give Evita its due: the show ran for nearly three years on Broadway in the early 1980s, taking the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for best musical, book, score, director and lead actress. Evita's success launched a series of world tours, but also got historians thinking about the unbalanced depiction of its controversial title character.
By now, many may have forgotten that the show's creators originally made its lead far more sympathetic. After early political outcry that the musical might praise Argentina's controversial mid-century president Juan Perón, librettist Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber recalibrated the work's critical stance—with a vengeance.
The result was a hectoring musical, based on a lurid and subsequently discredited 1952 biography, The Woman with the Whip. In it, one person alone is to blame for all ills: Eva herself.
As a result, N.C. Theatre presents us with a caricature appropriate only for Halloween: an unbelievably unredeemable wicked witch as the central character, occasionally serenaded by the Argentine proletariat who tonelessly chant "Perón ... Perón ... "—somewhat like zombies—at several points.
Chris Bernier's skeletal set leaves the stage's generic black drapes visible during the show. It does, however, echo Evita's skeletal plot structure, in which narrator Che Guevara (an ever-sneering, ever-nasal Ray Walker) flings two acts of accusations at Lauren Kennedy's title character as he recounts her life. If Rice didn't drive down the occasional expositional dead end (including a dilatory solo by Juan's mistress, who is seen in one scene only), an already thin cast of individual characters would be reduced to three.
True, a large cast of extras entertainingly depicts other forces at play in Argentina's culture: the crowds crying for "A New Argentina," the upper-crust and a goose-stepping junta in "The Actress Hasn't Learned," and a quintet depicting a deadly political game of musical chairs in the striking "The Art of the Possible."
But has Lloyd Webber's score aged all that well? Kennedy's luminous voice gives "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" true buoyancy. But "Eva, Beware of the City" with its thud-like "Big Apple" refrain, and "Buenos Aires," here with director Tito Hernandez' lackluster choreography, remains unsold.
The chemistry between Jonathan Hammond's Juan and Kennedy's Eva is quickly sacrificed to a plot demanding their marriage be a loveless union of political manipulation. How far does Rice take this? As Eva's dying of uterine cancer, her hospital bed isn't surrounded by family and loved ones—but by her costume, hair and makeup designers instead.
I don't buy it. A two-act—but one-note—indictment of a straw woman this thin loses all believability before the end.