The mythologizing of Eva Perón began early: Her autobiography does not mention events from her childhood, her date of birth or even her name at birth, and she may have falsified a birth certificate to make herself seem younger when she married Juan Perón in 1945.
So composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist-librettist Tim Rice had a free hand when they wrote a concept album of songs about her in 1976. They could make up anything – and did, including an encounter with revolutionary-to-be Che Guevara, who serves as narrator and commentator in “Evita.”
What they couldn’t quite do was decide whether they admired, despised or empathized with the girl who rose from poverty to become the beloved first lady of Argentina in the 1940s. So the way we view Evita and “Evita” depends mostly on the star playing her and the director.
In the Broadway Lights production now at Belk Theater – the best touring show I’ve seen there since “South Pacific” almost five years ago – Caroline Bowman plays Eva as a woman for whom adoration is heroin.
She always needs more, she never gets enough to satisfy her, she behaves in strange and probably illegal ways to get it. She doesn’t die from it, because cancer killed Eva Perón at 33. But as her ghost addresses the audience at last, we’re left to wonder if that bottomless need could ever have been filled.
Bowman’s Evita is a hard woman; when Peron (Sean MacLaughlin) sings “She’s a Diamond,” he’s almost being literal. When sickness renders her vulnerable, she’s pathetic but still a bit scary. People around her, whom we see metaphorically in the light bouncing off her jewels and blonde coiffure, are defined by her. Peron uses Eva to gain the people’s love, but he’s also a kind of victim. Che (Josh Young) seems not just clear-eyed and cruel but disappointed, sensing a missed opportunity for his homeland.
The show has a different flavor than it did in the 1970s. Orchestrators Lloyd Webber and David Cullen added Latin instruments and rhythms for the 2006 revival. Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford make the chorus a real character, not a mass: Mourners at her funeral begin to sway gently and morph into silent tango dancers in the background. Though no one in the show attempts a South American accent (less of a drawback than I’d thought), newsreels at the beginning plant us in Argentina.
What sets this production apart, though, is sound, from the unusually clear audio mix to the cast’s excellent diction to the big, muscular band in the pit. Small roles, such as tango singer Magaldi (Christopher Johnstone) and Perón’s unnamed mistress (Krystina Alabado), have gone to performers with powerful, attractive voices.
MacLaughlin may not be old enough for Perón, who was 24 years Eva’s senior, but the advantage of youth is a lustrous baritone; he sings the part better than any Peron I know, from the original Broadway cast to the most recent recording. Josh Young brings a huge, expressive tenor voice to Che; he can scale it down for regretful moments or raise the roof in anger, and every word registers in his compelling performance.
That’s also true for Bowman. Evita’s role goes into high registers where many sopranos screech like deranged cockatoos, but she simply shifts into another gear. This Evita feeds off the onstage crowd’s adulation, which makes her stronger and more confident. It’s hard to watch such naked desire in a human bring, but impossible in this case to turn away.