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May 30, 2012

Why the Money Keeps Rolling in for "Evita"

Anyone who still questions the value of star power on Broadway should take a look at the current revival of Evita in which the pop star Ricky Martin plays Che, the narrator of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical about the controversial Argentinean icon Eva Perón. 

The show has gotten only so-so reviews (click here to see the roundup that averaged a B- on StageGrade) and just a stingy three Tony nominations but it is almost selling out the big 1,600-seat Marquis Theatre each night and the majority of those tickets seem to be going for full price.

Similarly, anyone who thinks that it is still career suicide for gay performers to come out to the public might want to think about that again too.  Martin came out in 2010, has become an outspoken advocate for gay rights and married his longtime beau economist Carlos Gonzalez Abella earlier this year. The couple have two-year-old twin sons who were born via a surrogate mother. 

But none of that stopped the women in the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended from ogling Martin’s buff physique and loudly expressing their pleasure with it or fantasies about what they might do with it.   

“Ricky. Ricky. Ricky,” the women sitting behind me chanted when Martin came out for the curtain call.  And they knew the real deal. “Do you think he’ll stay around to sign autographs?” one asked her friend.  “Nah,” came the answer.  “He’s got to get home to Carlos and the kids.”

Martin isn’t a stage newbie (he played Marius in Les Misérables back in 1996) and he’s got a good voice but he and director Michael Grandage have reconceived Che so that the character isn’t the cynical provocateur that Mandy Patinkin portrayed in the multiple-Tony winning 1979 Broadway production. Instead, Martin’s Che is literally an Everyman and, as such, he blends into the ensemble far too much.

Of course the real star of Evita is supposed to be the actress playing Evita.  It’s a killer role that requires nuanced acting and a vocal dexterity that might give an opera star agita. It made a star of Elaine Paige when she originated the role in London and of Patti LuPone when she later played the part on Broadway. 

So there was a lot of anticipation about this production which promised to bring a new authenticity to the role by casting the Argentinean actress Elena Roger in the part. And Roger drew raves when she played Evita in London back in 2007.  But something happened in the intervening five years because her Evita is far less successful now. Roger's acting is fine, as is her dancing.  It’s the singing that’s the problem. She's unstable on the high notes and strains with some of the others as well.

And that’s a real shame because the music for Evita is sublime. There’s not one clunker in the entire score.  Luckily, the always-satisfying Michael Cerveris is on hand to deliver as Juan Perón and he's earned one of the show’s three Tony nominations (click here to read a piece about him).   

Meanwhile the creative team is firing on all-cylinders, lead by choreographer Rob Ashford, who fills the stage with terrific tango-infused dance numbers (he got one of the Tony nods too). 

I had a good time at the show.  And yet, I confess, the moment I got home, I fired up the 1979 cast album and luxuriated in the passion and skill that Patinkin and LuPone brought to Che and Evita and that, for all Roger's authenticity and Martin's likeability (and saleability) is missing from the current production. 

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