The musical Evita portrays a brutal time in the history of Argentina; the production that opened Tuesday at the Straz Center in Tampa certainly began in that vein.
The sound in the first act was harsh, over-amplified, often unintelligible. This perception may have been due to technical maladjustments, or more likely, my seat eight rows from the orchestra pit. We were also directly in front of the massive loudspeakers charged with projecting the sound to the distant rafters.
It felt like an assault. Several folks in my same row had similar reactions. Friends in the mezzanine and upper gallery, however, reported that they could hear everything fine, including the words.
Fortunately the second act was better balanced. And the whole show received a standing ovation, with whistles and cheers.
The musical story of the glamorous and tragic Eva Perón is well-beloved, one of the five most popular in composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's juggernaut. Its New York premiere in 1979 won the Tony for Best Musical and ran for almost four years. At least one mega-hit came from it, the infectious and poignant Don't Cry For Me, Argentina, and there have been numerous touring productions since. The current tour derives from the 2012 Broadway revival that ran for 10 months with a different cast.
Evita has a timeless political relevance. Eva (Caroline Bowman) and her dictator husband Juan Perón (Sean MacLaughlin) distract the masses with false promises and pageantry while looting the public till. At one point, Perón refers to his shadowy fellow profiteers as "my stockholders."
Eva's dramatic foil is not her husband, but the character of Che, who serves as the show's narrator and commentator on the corruption at the heart of the Peronist regime. As Che, Josh Young gave the best, most consistent performance of the night on Tuesday. A cynical critic from the working class, Young's character managed not to be preachy even while getting his points across. Most important, his singing diction was impeccable.
The same could not be said, alas, for Bowman in the role of Evita. In the first act, I understood only about 20 percent of what she sang. The second act contains more delicate songs, which may have been why it sounded better. On this night, at least, Bowman seemed to have only two voices: softly affecting and shouting. To be fair, Patti LuPone, who originated the role on Broadway, famously said that singing Evita "was the worst experience of my life. I was screaming my way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women."
There's an element of camp in the title character: a glamorous woman, flawed by fierce and amoral ambition, pretending to be something she's not. Of course, she dies tragically, and her swooning mourners are over the top. To a certain kind of theater-goer, it may be worth the price of admission just to see Evita's frequent costume changes, expertly designed by Christopher Oram, reflecting some of the smartest fashions of the 1940s. The double-breasted suits on some of the men were impressive, as well.
Other cast members were convincingly suave, menacing or scared as required, especially MacLaughlin as the dictator Perón. There is some sensuous dancing, except when it devolves into imperious stomping to reflect the crudeness of power. The sets, also designed by Oram, made efficient use of columns, arches, skylights, and of course, that famous balcony. Neil Austin's sepia lighting, with lots of shadows, fit the darkness of the subject.
In the end, Evita, like the character, is a striking visual pageant; as several soundtracks attest, it can also be subtle and affecting. Tuesday's performance wasn't that.