The opening lines of Evita are these: “It is the sad duty of the secretary of the press to inform the people of Argentina that Eva Peron, spiritual leader of the nation, entered immortality at 20.25 hours today.” Wrong. Eva Peron entered immortality when Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber completed their opera Evita in 1976. Most of us would not otherwise know her name, much less the diminutive that gives the show its title.
Even in the try-anything Seventies, and even with the composer and lyricists having already proven successful with Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita was such an unusual idea — er, fellas, we’re doing a kind of satiric tragedy about a forgotten Latin American populist’s wife — that no producer would stage it; instead, Lloyd Webber and Rice introduced it via a concept album in an attempt to entice backers with the quality of their songs. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” hit No. 1 on the British pop chart in February of 1977 and the songwriters had themselves a Hall of Fame standard before the show was even produced, the following year in the West End.
Today Evita is close to a model of what we think of as a sophisticated Broadway show: The storyline is fraught with social, historical, economic, and political questions, but also provides opportunities for spectacle and even comic relief. The titanically demanding title role, which calls for a vocal artist with the range of a ballistic missile and sufficient lung power to register as a tornado on National Weather Service radar, has become the diva part by which all other divas are measured. The ideal candidate for the role will serve as a perfect drama queen offstage as well, hence the dust cloud kicked up by Broadway’s original Evita, Patti LuPone, who declared the role that made her rich and famous “the worst experience of my life.”
We’ll have to wait 30 years to find out whether the latest Evita, Solea Pfeiffer, will achieve LuPone’s dreadnought status as a Broadway figure, but in the new limited-run production at Manhattan’s City Center (through November 24) she is breathtakingly good. Just 25, Pfeiffer is so fresh she doesn’t yet have a Wikipedia page. Remember the name. She commands the stage as an actress and handles the vocals with a combination of thunder and silk that brings tears to the eyes. Any quibbles about the choices made by the equally young director, Sammi Cannold, are less important than Pfeiffer’s spectacular performance.
Youth is the major driver of ideas in this production; Eva Peron was only 33 when she died of cancer but has typically been played by actresses a bit older than that. To highlight the brevity of Peron’s life, Cannold brings in a second actress, teen television star Maia Reficco, to play Eva at age 15. Reficco brings a bland Disney Channel presence to the show and her voice is strictly the stuff of pop radio, but she sings only a couple of songs and doesn’t much get in the way of things, except literally. Cannold frequently has her enter and exit the stage awkwardly, at random moments, to wander around the scenery in an effort to remind us that Evita was once an innocent teen girl, whose journey to fame began when she was seduced by a much older tango singer, Magaldi (Philip Hernandez). In other words, Cannold casts Eva Peron as a target of predatory men — “For a figure who has a reputation of being a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore,’ it felt critical to change those words to ‘victim’ and ‘survivor,’” she said in a recent interview. But that idea gets vaporized by Rice’s book and lyrics, which paint Peron as a barracuda from day one. The arrow of seduction is pointing the other way in the affair with Magaldi, who “has the distinction of being the first man to be of use to Eva Duarte,” as a lyric puts it. Rice builds a famous joke around the question of whether Peron was a lady of easy virtue: “They actually called me a whore!” she exclaims at one point. That’s okay, a man reassures her: “I’m still called an admiral though I gave up the sea long ago.” Theater directors are these days so eager to put their own stamp on a famous show that they come off looking a bit obtuse. Rice’s text is written in acid, yet, given that he named his daughter Eva, it is colored by a certain grudging reverence, even awe, at how Peron willed herself to become the idol of her people. What it does not do is paint Evita as a victim. That’s a conceptual error.
Rice blasts away at Peron as a corrupt and self-serving manipulator through the cynical narrator, fancifully named Che because Guevara (a fellow Argentine) once had a chance encounter with Evita. Che even denigrates Peron’s charity work for her peasant “descamisados,” in “And the Money Kept Rolling In.” Jason Gotay sings the role beautifully, in an endearing high tenor, but can’t figure out what to do with his body and spends the entire evening standing around as limp as a fern. He might take some notes on posture and bearing from Antonio Banderas, who played the role with kinetic bravado in Alan Parker’s 1996 film version. As Juan Peron, very much inferior to the other two characters in importance, Enrique Acevedo contributes a fine voice and a stolid, block-like authority; he has sufficient physical presence to seem convincing as the head of a great nation, or even Argentina.
It was for the big-screen adaptation of their show, 20 years after they first wrote it, that Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote the heartbreaker “You Must Love Me,” which captured the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1996 and now seems indispensable to the show, giving the dying Evita a sorrowful moment of uncharacteristic pathos. Cannold has wisely retained it in her show, and Pfeiffer sings it as movingly as you would hope. Evita leaves the audience with a complicated tangle of feelings about Mrs. Peron but no doubt at all about the quality of its justly famed slate of songs.