Director Michael Grandage scores with a dynamic new “Evita,” graced by an impressive performance from Argentinean actress Elena Roger and the ticket-selling presence of recording star Ricky Martin, who acquits himself nicely if not remarkably. The 1979 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice poperetta comes off fairly well in its first Broadway revival, thanks to a director who doesn’t seem crimped or intimidated by Hal Prince’s striking original staging. That said, the flaws inherent in the material — typified by grasping-at-straws rhymes like “That’s what they call me/so Lauren Bacall me” — remain. Look for boffo biz so long as Martin chooses to stay.
Buenos Aires thesp Roger took London by storm when she appeared, virtually unknown, in Grandage’s 2006 production (here reassembled with a mostly American cast). Roger’s voice is not so big as some of her predecessors in the title role, but no matter; she gets to the heart of the character. (The actress plays a six-performance week, with Christina DeCicco on the boards Wednesday evenings and Saturday matinees.)
The big attraction, though, is Martin, who previously appeared on Broadway (prior to stardom) as a replacement Marius in the long-running original production of “Les Miserables.” Here he takes on the co-starring role of narrator/commentator Che, and while his fans will surely be thrilled with the results, a non-pop-oriented theatergoer might find him merely fine in the role, with nothing in the performance to suggest he’s an international superstar.
The authors have stripped “Guevara” from the character’s name, a choice that makes a more-than-subtle difference. Mandy Patinkin was memorably dynamic in the original Broadway production because he could guide us, with a swagger, through Evita’s rise — from small-time actress to Gen. Peron’s latest flame, from power-hungry dictatoress to iconic “Santa Evita.” Martin isn’t given Guevara’s scraggly locks or, for that matter, much of a character to work with; he does everything well, but there’s no opportunity to seize attention from his castmates. In a classy gesture, the top-billed star gives the final bow to Roger.
Michael Cerveris offers some surprises as Peron; sexual sparks fly as the general and his new lady tango in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” which makes his character more intriguing than usual.
Grandage — known here for “Red” and “Frost/Nixon,” both of which originated during his recently ended 10-year reign at London’s Donmar Warehouse — reunites with his design team from those plays: Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Neil Austin (lights). Everything looks stunning.
Also returning from the 2006 West End production is choreographer Rob Ashford, director/choreographer of Broadway’s current “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” This “Evita,” starting with a dazzling sequence during the song “What’s New, Buenos Aires,” is the most impressive work New York has yet seen from Ashford.
Lloyd Webber and Rice interpolate “You Must Love Me,” written for the 1996 film version, but it doesn’t enhance the problematic second act: After the rousing “Rainbow High,” Evita gets sick and starts to die, as does the musical.
Lloyd Webber and longtime musical associate David Cullen have provided new and reduced orchestrations, which are loudly amplified but not as rich as the originals; the substitution of an electronic keyboard for what had been a prominently featured harp, in particular, is an unfortunate economy. New-for-2006 dance arrangements devised by David Chase for choreographer Ashford are an asset.