REFLECTIONS Young and Bowman. [Photo by Richard Termine]
Just because a prominent, strong woman is formidable doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s admirable. Madonna may be a role model, but Imelda Marcos was mainly a shoe model. The musical Evita, at the Providence Performing Arts Center through September 14, works hard to convince us that the rags-to-riches wife of Argentina president Juan Perón was a hero indeed.
With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Evita uses the propulsive force of an orchestra to stir our empathizing emotions — no surprise, since the rock opera started as a concept album in 1976 to whip up interest and backer-bucks for its London opening two years later. In 1979 it grabbed a Tony Award for Best Musical and a half-dozen more for good measure. This revival is directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford.
It was Rice who was first fascinated by Evita Perón — naming his daughter after her, no less — and he proposed creating the show, traveling to Buenos Aires to conduct exhaustive research. Being heartfelt, it’s no wonder the music here is so transporting.
And an intriguing woman Eva was. Other accounts may depict her as a bit of a dragon lady, but the sympathetic perspective here doesn’t allow for more than her being headstrong and sometimes brash. Of course, despite her charity work, it wouldn’t be implausible to depict her as a Lady Macbeth, seeing as her husband was a populist autocrat who held Argentina in his thrice-elected thrall until 1955. The musical is largely based upon Mary Main’s biography The Woman With the Whip; as indicates by the unfortunate title, Eva’s standing astride the nation in stiletto heels and net stockings would not be a metaphorical stretch.
She sped from poverty to virtual royalty, a heady rise that would inflate the ego of a saint — and sainthood would have been hers if the poor masses who anointed her had their way. Lofted to heights of admiration, she had her detractors, but it took a fatal illness to topple her at 33.
Her death is not played for suspense, as lengthy newsreel footage of her funeral procession through packed streets starts things off. The story continues as a sprightly 15-year-old Eva Duarte (Caroline Bowman) falls for handsome singer Augustin Magaldi (Christopher Johnstone), successfully begging him to bring her to Buenos Aires. “Goodnight and Thank You” is a humorous take on the many lovers subsequently trooping through her bedroom.
We meet Juan Perón (Sean MacLaughlin) when he is successfully vying with other military officers in “The Art of the Possible.” (Briefly grappling with four of them gets across the aggression, but playing musical chairs with a dozen of them in the 2006 touring production was much more effective.)
Che Guevara (Josh Young) is narrating all of this, although since he is stripped of his military uniform and trademark beret, he could be any observer and not the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary who originally gave this musical political significance.