There’s no place quite like Broadway when it comes to reviving musical theater classics, as the recent national tours of Anything Goes and West Side Story have made abundantly clear. Now, as if further proof were necessary, comes Michael Grandage and Rob Ashford’s spectacular re-envisioning of the 1978 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice blockbuster Evita, a revival that debuted in London’s West End in 2006 before transferring to Broadway in 2012, where it received three Tony nominations, including Best Revival Of A Musical and Best Choreography.

Southern California audiences now get the chance to see what all the hoopla’s been about as the revival’s First National Tour pays a two-week visit to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Sean McLaughlin as 'Juan Perón' and Caroline Bowman as 'Eva Perón' in the National Tour of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine It’s clear from the get-go that this is not going to be yet another retread of the 1980 Broadway production, however spectacular it was, for instead of opening the show in a Buenos Aires movie theater as the latest 1952 film hit is interrupted by an announcement that Eva Perón, “the spiritual leader of the nation, has entered immortality,” this same announcement has inspired director Grandage and choreographer Ashford to create a striking new opening sequence.

1236593_648902381797026_977617082_n As the citizens of Argentina sing “Requiem For Evita,” the revival’s dynamic creative duo split the proscenium horizontally in half. At stage level, mourners perform the first of Ashford’s many Argentine tangos to Lloyd Webber and Rice’s deeply emotional opening number, while the entire upper half of the proscenium is filled with black-and-white newsreel footage of the real Eva Perón’s funeral, countless thousands of citizens of Buenos Aires filling the streets to commemorate the life and mourn the death of their Santa Evita. The juxtaposition of live performance and film is stunning, and cues us in from the get-go that the story we’re about to see is not only real, but that it will be told with more dance than other Evitas that have come before.

The charismatic figure of the character known only as Che (Josh Young) then makes his first appearance as a sort of one-man Greek chorus and narrator, observing all this with an outsider’s eye (“Oh What A Circus”), and before long we have gone back eighteen years to a night club in Junín, Eva’s hometown, where matinee heartthrob Augustín Magaldi (Christopher Johnstone) is serenading his female fans with “On This Night Of A Thousand Stars.”

Caroline Bowman as 'Eva' and the cast in the National Tour of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine And then, there she is, young brunette Eva (Caroline Bowman), ready to seduce Magaldi, move to Buenos Aires, and conquer the world, even if it means sleeping her way to the top.

“Buenos Aires,” always one of Evita’s most rousing sequences, becomes yet another eye-catching production number from the Tony-winning (and eight-time Tony-nominated) Ashford, who weaves the Tango Argentino as a leitmotif throughout this fresh new vision of a 35-year-old classic.

In “Goodnight And Thank You,” Eva begins her rise to international stardom as a series of lovers, each one higher positioned than the one before, enter and exit Eva’s life as if through a revolving door, each of them leaving behind the gift of a silk robe, each robe more expensive and elegant than the last.

Sean MacLaughlin as 'Juan Perón' and the 'Generals' in the Touring Cast of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine “The Art Of The Possible” is yet another Grandage-Ashford innovation, no longer staged as a game of musical chairs with Argentinean colonels eliminated one-by-one until only future President Juan Perón is left standing, but as a series of two-man Greco-Roman wrestling matches whose man-on-man tango footwork makes for a strikingly Argentinean (and darned sexy) vision of something old turned new again.

Krystina Alabado as 'The Mistress' and Josh Young as 'Che' in the National Tour of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine After Perón (Sean MacLaughlin) meets Eva at a charity concert where they both realize that “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You,” it’s goodbye to Perón’s mistress (Krystina Alabardo singing “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”) and hello Eva.

Never underestimate a conniving woman with a goal to achieve, for soon Evita Perón has persuaded her smitten husband to try for Argentina’s highest prize, the Presidency, and Act One ends with a rousing, hankies-waving-in-the-air “A New Argentina.”

“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” begins the second act with a bang as Eva continues her quest for power, popularity and fame. There’s her “Rainbow Tour” of Europe, a tour which starts with high hopes only to end with the ignominious cancellation of the final stop, England. And then, as Perón’s administration becomes one of failure and abuse of power, Eva falls victim to the cancer which is to end her life at the age of 33.

Caroline Bowman as 'Eva Perón' in the National Tour of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine (2) There can, of course, be no Evita without a leading lady to fill a pair of her who-knows-how-many designer shoes, and the sensational Bowman does just that in a performance that takes her from the Broadway ensemble of Kinky Boots to the starring role she was born to play. From giddy teenager to glamorous radio star to elegant first lady to stricken cancer victim, Bowman gives us all these Evas, with acting chops, dance steps, and above all rafter-reaching vocals, making the role entirely her own. And as an added bonus, this Eva now gets to sing the Academy Award-winning “You Must Love Me,” written for the Madonna-starring film, and performed onstage for the first time to heartbreaking effect by an extraordinarily moving Bowman.

Caroline Bowman as 'Eva Perón' and Josh Young as 'Che' in the Touring Cast of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine Young, Tony-nominated for the role of Judas in the recent Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, is not only a dynamic, sexy presence (and observer of Eva’s rise to fame and her fall from the heights), his gorgeous pipes make the very most of songs like “Oh, What A Circus,” “Rainbow Tour,” and “And The Money Keeps Rolling In.”

It’s hard to imagine a more leading-man handsome Perón  than MacLaughlin to play the thrice-elected President of Argentina, nor one with a more gorgeous voice to duet “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You” or reprise “You Must Love Me,” nor one more able to make Perón  far more than just a cardboard political figure.

Evita’s only two other featured roles are hardly more than cameos, though both Johnstone’s  romantic crooner Magaldi and Alabado’s lovely, poignant “deposed” Perón mistress deserve highest marks for making these cameos as memorable as possible.

Josh Young as 'Che' and the Touring Cast of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine Though Evita is not what you’d call an “ensemble musical,” ensemble members Abalardo, Ryan K. Bailer, Nicholas Belton, Jessica Bishop, Ronald L. Brown, Holly Ann Butler, Diana DiMarzio, Samantha Farrow, Katharine Heaton, Tony Howell, Katie Huff, Johnstone, Patrick Oliver Jones, Chris Kotera, Alison Mahoney, Megan Ort, John Riddle, Jeffrey C. Sousa, and Alicia Taylor Tomasko are actually given plenty to do in their multiple tracks as Bueno Aires’ elite, military, and descamisados, and they do so with copious Broadway talent and flair. A quartet of swings (dance captain Ian Liberto, assistant dance captain Robin Masella, Morgan Rose, and Tug Watson) are poised to step into ensemble tracks at any time, and in fact Masella and Rose did just so at the Opening Night performance reviewed.

Desi Oakley will be performing the role of Eva at certain performances.

West End-Broadway director Grandage and choreographer Ashford have their roles assumed on this National Tour, and assuredly so, by Seth Sklar-Heyn and Chris Bailey. Music director William Waldrop conducts the Broadway-caliber pit orchestra.

The Touring Cast of EVITA. Photo by Richard Termine Audiences who’ve seen Evita regionally in years past are likely to ooh and aah Christopher Oram’s fresh new scenic design, one which features more colorful, literal interpretations of the musical’s many locales than the Broadway original, giving this revival a more authentically Argentinean look. (You really feel you are there looking up at Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada.) Oram’s dazzling costumes, Neil Austin’s vivid lighting, Mick Potter’s crystal-clear sound design, Richard Mawbrey’s remarkably real looking wigs (and era-appropriate hair design), and Zachary Borovay’s black-and-white documentary film projections all contribute to giving this revival a brand-new look and sound. Bonnie Panson is production stage manager.

Having seen several top-drawer regional revivals of Evita over the past decade, I might have passed on yet another, had this been nothing more than a retread of well-trodden territory. Such was definitely not the case with this Broadway First National Tour, a production which not only lived up to this reviewer’s expectations, it exceeded them…and then some. This is one Evita you will most definitely not want to miss.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
December 10, 2013
Photos: Richard Termine

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