Dallas — The opening tableau of a giant screen hanging low over a crowd of mourners threatens to sink the tour of Evita right as it begins. The actors stand as a flat crowd whereas the video takes us up close to actual mourner’s faces as the elaborate coffin parades down the street in a vintage clip.
There’s no comparison.
But just as you conclude that the director, Michael Grandage, has shot himself in the foot in this touring production of his 2012 Broadway revival, now playing Music Hall at Fair Park courtesy Dallas Summer Musicals, Josh Young as Che breaks the company’s staid elegiac number with his “Oh, What a Circus.”
And you’re hooked.
No longer the smarmy revolutionary Che Guevara of Hal Prince’s Broadway version, this Che is an every-workingman more faithful to the original album who will provide context and contrast to the story of Eva Peron’s meteoric rise from Argentinean plains poverty to its palace. More importantly, Josh Young, in an effortless textured baritone, puts truth into the lines in such a way that restores the power of live performance.
Young breaks the rhythm into bite-sized pieces demanding your attention and destroying whichever old version of Evita plays on shuffle in your head. Sure, when we get to “Sing you fools, you got it wrong,” there remains some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gummy guitar work you remember, but when those moments clear, there are chills to be had.
He’s David to the Goliath 30-foot screen.
The screen loses and mercifully flies away, replaced for most of the evening by giant arches atop a balcony over doors. The better for lighting designer Neil Austin to play with. The best being a late scene in which the backlit windows create great angled shafts of light reminiscent of romantic pictures of Grand Central station. Scenic designer Christopher Oram is mindful of the elegance and power of 1930’s Argentina and faithfully reminds us not only in this grand set but in his lovely costumes as well.
Caroline Bowman as Eva takes some time to emerge from the noise in the murky cantina scene in which she is discovered but by the time “Buenos Aires” rolls around it’s clear she’s got the lungs and legs to carry the night. Choreographer Rob Ashford has taken the tango for his vocabulary and a cue from Webber’s reuse of phrases to reinforce moments. Bowman can fill the seductive yet predatory steps, but on the military generals in “Art of the Possible,” it’s frankly embarrassing.
Sean MacLaughlin’s Peron is dashing and disarmingly human. The chemistry with Bowman is such that you’d be almost fooled into thinking this was a love story, but the harsh ouster of Peron’s mistress, a very young looking Krystina Alabado, will clear that up. So clear that with Alabado’s “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” the chills return.
The act is rounded out by the formidable “A New Argentina” that is curiously too satisfying. Instead of building a foreboding tension that will intrigue the audience during intermission, the staging with the Perons standing triumphant on the balcony and the cast waving their handkerchiefs below seems like a finale, with the only uncertainty coming from Bowman’s belting. Don’t worry. She’ll make up for it in Act II.
With his set, Oram enables the balcony to move forward in a reverential offering of THE song of the evening, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” As per the winning formula for the evening, the simplicity of Bowman on a balcony in a spotlight generates chill after chill. At this moment, in her hands, the mythic Evita seems familiar, almost knowable.
The momentum builds through “Rainbow High,” reaching a peak at the show-stopping “And the Money Kept Rolling In.” It’s as if the cast has been aching for a chance to show off Ashford’s choreography. And Young shows off a little of his power. It’s clear this Tony award nominee has a lot more in the tank.
It would be downhill from here, partly because of the plot (Eva is dying of cancer), but partly due to the shape of Webber and Rice’s creation. True, there’s the song added from the movie, “You Must Love Me.” But it the real rescue is the heartfelt “She is a Diamond,” from MacLaughlin. Rivaling Young in the opening, MacLaughlin adds so much feeling that the number must be recognized as more than just a late attempt to create sympathy. In MacLaughlin’s hands Peron becomes fully three-dimensional.
The finale-less ending still smacks of the concept album from whence it came, but there’s no denying the power when you can get the whole of the Fair Park Music Hall to their feet with silence.
It’s not an evening with Patinkin and LuPone, but it’s far better than the Ricky Martin incarnation. You can tell the difference between touring and Tony by the goose bumps. Some of this is the former but more is the latter, and all of it is Evita.
And how can you miss that?