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MADONNA // Our lady of the show tune

(ran GB edition)

Go ahead, cry for Madonna.

Pull out your hankies and sob. But your tears will be wasted: The woman who made a career of reinventing herself _ from disco diva to virtual virgin to sexual shocker _ has done it again. She has transformed herself into a musical theater star, sliding into that precious zone where rock stars dare not travel.

Ms. Material Girl is Evita _ at least on the soundtrack released this week by Warner Bros. She had to lobby to get the title role in the coming film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Evita, and ever since, naysayers from Bel Air to Buenos Aires have carped, "How could that vixen dare sing Don't Cry for Me, Argentina?"

Well, Madonna _ who spent six months taking formal voice lessons _ not only sings that insidious little tune, she makes it her own. And on the soundtrack, she and co-stars Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas breathe contemporary resonance into the 1976 musical pastiche about Eva Peron, wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron and saint of the descamisados (the poor huddled masses). In fact, the casting is so perfect that reality and fiction blend in Tim Rice's lyrics and Lloyd Webber's lush yet repetitive score.

The musical opens and closes with Evita's funeral, so when you first hear Madonna's newly trained voice, she is singing from the grave. Gone is the kitchy-koo, girly-girl technique of the disco days: This is a mature voice, full of wistful yearning and perhaps even wisdom. As she hits the swells and troughs of the music, Madonna covers a range of emotions: ambition and anger, longing and lust, defiance and despair. She goes from the ambitious actress to Lady Macbeth to sainted philanthropist _ all without missing a note.

In her first solo, Buenos Aires, she exudes unbridled confidence as Evita heads for the big city. Here, and elsewhere, the music has an insistent beat that wasn't as noticeable in the London and Broadway soundtracks. You actually want to get up and dance _ which is saying a lot for the show-tune crowd.

And that's not the only difference. La Madonna had a little argument with Lloyd Webber about the plot, which paints Evita as a ruthless schemer who, for lack of a better term, slept her way to the top and dominated Peron. Evita, like many powerful women, was branded as either a slut or a saint, a label Madonna knows herself.

The soundtrack reflects a slightly different attitude: Madonna sings the mournful Another Suitcase in Another Hall, a song delivered in the original by the teenage mistress Peron casts off for Evita. "So what happens now? Where am I going to?" she sings in a breathy voice, making Evita just a little more vulnerable, a little more human.

Likewise Peron, as sung by that wonderful stage veteran Pryce, is less of a puppet ruled by Evita, especially in his haunting solo She Is a Diamond. And Banderas drips with sensuality as the Argentine revolutionary and unlikely narrator Che Guevera: The man may not be capable of the vocal gymnastics of a Mandy Patinkin (who played Che on Broadway), but he can do irony laced with a Spanish accent.

But as Che keeps telling us, Evita is the star of this show _ as if Madonna doesn't already know that. She wears the role in her voice. In the seductive I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You, she doesn't so much sing but ooze the words, taking her voice down to a whisper here, a wink there. In You Must Love Me, a ballad composed for the film, her voice quivers and aches, despite the insipid lyrics.

Of course, the soundtrack doesn't cure the score of its annoying repetitive themes and heavy-handed orchestration. Don't Cry for Me, Argentina, after all, is an insidious song that has a habit of showing up in the morning coffee, but as sung by Madonna, it's gourmet coffee. The lyrics seem to be written for her: "All through my wild days / My mad existence / I kept my promise / Don't keep your distance." When the orchestra gets around to that final lush swell, Madonna owns the song _ and makes no apologies to those who sang it before her. So don't cry, Argentines or show-tune fanatics. Evita survives Madonna.

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