“Evita” at the Orpheum Theatre: What Did You Say, Buenos Aires?

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It’s hard to know what to make of “Evita,” now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, because much of the musical gets lost along with the leading lady’s dropped consonants. While Caroline Bowman, the actress who plays Eva, has a powerful voice and an impressive range, she does not enunciate. Since “Evita” is almost entirely sung, with a few spoken asides but no real dialogue, losing many of the main character’s lines can lead to significant gaps in the audience’s understanding of the show as a whole.

Every time the audience gets really lost, Che—the cynical everyman narrator, played by Josh Young—comes to the rescue. Young’s voice is strong and smooth, and he can convincingly belt as both a bass and an alto. Whenever he appears, Young’s character explains what is happening and, to an extent, why. While this is exceedingly helpful, especially given what the audience has missed due to Bowman’s imperfect diction, sometimes the explanations feel suffocating. Che leaves nothing to chance, giving the audience every relevant detail about the social situation in Buenos Aires and the tensions among the characters. At times, Che’s solos seem to patronize the audience, which is not left to infer or notice much on its own.

Regardless of this, the show looks spectacular. Rob Ashford’s Broadway-ified, tango-inspired choreography is fun, sensual, and exotic. Unlike many musicals, “Evita” requires all of its actors, including the leads, dance extensively. While Bowman is occasionally out of step with the chorus dancers, overall the dancing is gorgeous, energetic, and surprisingly synchronized.

The costumes, designed by Christopher Oram, are similarly well done. Clothes play a large role in demarcating social class—uniforms for the military, bandanas for the poor—which is crucial given the importance of class distinctions as a theme in “Evita.” Meanwhile, for most of the show, Eva is dressed in white. This seems strange at times, especially while Eva is sleeping her way to the top of the social pyramid in a fairly modest white slip. However, as is visible throughout the show, Eva’s people viewed her as a saint, and the white clothing contributes to the idea of Eva’s holiness. That Eva wears white while slipping purloined money into a secret Swiss bank account—well, that is one of the few points on which Che allows the audience to make up its own mind.

Despite its flaws, “Evita” is a spectacular and engaging show. With the character of Eva, Andrew Lloyd Webber is able to show off his flair for writing morally ambiguous protagonists, and he pulls it off here almost as well as he did in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Furthermore, despite Bowman’s disappointments, the show contains some outstanding performances, notably Young as Che and Krystina Alabado with her strong and chilling portrayal of the Mistress. The book has also been updated since its debut to take into account newly available information about Eva Perón and the Argentina she enthralled, and the historical value of this production is considerable.

If you enjoy musical theater and are willing to put up with imperfection for the sake of a good show done mostly well, come see “Evita” while it’s in Minneapolis. As Eva would say, it could be surprisingly good for you.