Saint or sinner? Like most human beings, María Eva Duarte de Perón — called Evita by the multitudes who adored her — didn’t land at either extreme.
In the Argentina of the late 1940s and early ’50s, she was a glamorous, self-defined political and cultural celebrity, a woman loved and reviled. Her death at 33 from cervical cancer caused her early exit from the spotlight she craved. Yet more than 60 years after her passing, she is still commanding world stages in the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Evita.
Beginning a six-day run at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, the reimagined production of Evita is a touring version of British director Michael Grandage’s 2006 London revival, which also played Broadway in 2012.
Assembled 30 years after Evita was first released as a concept album, the new show is different in approach, style and design from director Harold Prince’s bold, Brechtian, Tony Award-winning 1978 original.
“The word we kept using was ‘authenticity,’ ” says Hal Luftig, lead producer of the recent Broadway revival. “When the show was first done, people didn’t know as much about Argentina; now, we know so much more. … We wanted this to have an authentic Argentinian sound, authentic dance.”
To that end, Lloyd Webber and David Cullen reorchestrated the score to infuse it with the sounds of tango, with rhythmic violins and the bandoneón, and tango became choreographer Rob Ashford’s major dance motif, re-created for the tour by his associate Chris Bailey. Set designer Christopher Oram created a stunning plaza and his own take on the Casa Rosada presidential palace. Some of Oram’s costumes for Eva were inspired by Perón’s designer-made wardrobe. More significantly, the creative team’s point of view about Eva, a rancher’s illegitimate daughter who became the controversial first lady of Argentina, shifted away from black-and-white into gray.
“People respond to a story that isn’t all good or all bad,” Luftig says.
Some of the revival’s attitude toward Evita came from Argentine actress Elena Roger, who lobbied hard for the part of Eva and played the role in London and on Broadway.
“Elena acknowledged that Eva may have done bad things with her power, but her justification was that she was doing it for the people, the descamisados, who came from the same class that she was from,” says director Seth Sklar-Heyn, who assisted Grandage on the revival and staged the tour. “She didn’t see Eva as a villain. She saw her as a sympathetic character, a woman who had her reasons for doing what she did.”
Caroline Bowman, who went from the chorus of Kinky Boots on Broadway to playing the lead on the Evita tour, aims to provoke at least some empathy with her performance.
“You see her grow from a young lady into a woman. I try to make you feel for her,” Bowman says. “She’s sometimes portrayed as a whore, not the most likeable person. I wanted to show her behind closed doors. She’s a human being with flaws, a woman who made mistakes but who has a lot of heart. I want people to see the struggle.”
The show’s narrator Che, costumed and portrayed in the first production of Evita as if he were Argentina-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (who was a medical student and on his motorcycle trip through South America during Eva’s time in power), has reverted to Lloyd Webber and Rice’s original intention. He’s an observer, a commentator, an everyman.
Josh Young, a Tony Award nominee for his performance as Judas in the 2012 Broadway revival of Lloyd Webber’s and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, says he felt free to invent a history for this Che, a role played on Broadway by pop star Ricky Martin. Young played the more Guevara-like Che at Canada’s Stratford Festival in 2010, but he thinks the approach in the touring production makes more sense.
“His path and Eva’s never crossed. He’s reverted to being a working-class guy, which gave me a chance to make up my own back story,” Young says. “One thing I got from my costume. I wear these great leather shoes and suspenders, so I made him a worker at a tannery. That’s nothing the audience would know, but they see a three-dimensional character.”
Sean MacLaughlin, who played Raoul in Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, did plenty of research to arrive at his version of Juan Perón.
“I portray him with a little more heart. There’s a lot of great video, which I had someone translate for me,” says MacLaughlin, who is younger and slimmer than many actors who have played Perón. “Finding who he was was a real challenge. It’s my first time playing someone real, and you want to do the person justice.”
What MacLaughlin brings to Perón, Sklar-Heyn says, is more than the intensity that the role needs.
“He also has a sexual energy. We try to tell the story of the true attraction between Eva and Perón. You have to believe their passion. … We want to make the audience feel in a new way in this production,” he says. “It’s about details, intimacy, making the audience lean in in a new way … at the end, you take a breath, then you react. It lands and it resonates.”
Sklar-Heyn emphasizes that while the show’s striking Broadway design was somewhat streamlined for the tour, “we didn’t go to drops or flatten it out or use scrims. We wanted something architectural and dimensional, and we made the lighting architectural in its own right. The production grounds the story in a natural space in Argentina.”
In addition to the extensive research resources now available on the Internet, Sklar-Heyn says Grandage also used the 1996 film version of Evita starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas as inspiration. The Oscar-winning song from the movie, You Must Love Me, has been incorporated into the stage show’s score.
“Michael quite consciously referred to the film, which was based in the real world of Argentina. It was a halfway point between [Hal Prince’s] original and Michael’s revival. It was a stepping stone,” he says.
As for the show’s dance vocabulary, choreographer Bailey says that different styles of tango serve many functions.
“Tango can be sexy, soulful and sad, or explosive and energetic. We found it very easy to adapt, to add to moments,” he says.
“During the funeral procession, the actors turn and hug and almost fall down from grief, hanging off each other. But then we use tango when Eva and Perón first meet. You see four couples dancing, and it’s highly charged, as if they’re physically sealing the deal. All four guys pick up the women and throw them down in a stylized way, as if they’re throwing them onto a bed.”
In South Florida, with its vast Latino (and Argentine) population, Evita may resonate a little differently or more deeply than it does in other areas of the country. People here are likely to be more familiar with the history that permeates the show. And they may have strongly held opinions about the saint vs. sinner dichotomy when it comes to the real Eva.
Whatever the reactions, theatergoers will see a rock opera that has lasted — and that many consider Lloyd Webber’s best work.
“There’s a reason this show has been done for more than 30 years,” says MacLaughlin. “It’s an honor to sing it every night.”