The 2012 presidential campaign has, to date, been rife with climbers strong on ambition and light on substance who rely on forging cults of personality among passionate, if ignorant, followers all too willing to worship charisma when pandered to. Given this, it would seem the perfect time to revive “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera that charts the spectacular rise and fall of Eva Perón from country girl to first lady of Argentina to death from cancer at age 33.
Lloyd Webber and Rice even provide a narrator in the character of Che Guevara, who tells the story in hindsight, bringing his Marxist-inspired anger to the blatant power-grabbing of the Peróns and creating the dramatic tension that drives the piece and makes it exciting.
In his bland and tedious production, however, director Michael Grandage has ignored the politics and passions and taken the edges off Eva’s ambition and sexuality. The result is a pretty but pointless treatment one would imagine “Evita” getting on a cruise ship or at a casino, where one can hear the songs they know and love but not have to engage the drama or issues it might raise.
Why else would they have cast Ricky Martin as Che? To be fair, Martin is nothing if not charismatic. He knows how to take the stage, he moves well and confidently, and his voice and technique are in top shape. But he’s not Che. There is none of the anger, none of the knowledge of the chaos that followed the Peróns or the outrage at how a country was sucked into an illusion while its economy was decimated. Che is not a ballad singer; he’s an agitator. Martin’s Che is cuddly and unfocused, so the inherent conflict of the piece is gone.
Michael Cerveris turns in a solid performance as Perón, though he employs some of the overwrought mannerisms he used in “Sweeney Todd” and “LoveMusik.” Perón needs a little more steely ambition than the overly agonizing Cerveris gives him.
Elena Roger, who made a huge hit with this role in London in 2006, is the weakest of the three principals. At the performance I saw, she was having serious pitch problems with the high notes and wobbling in the lower register. This is probably one of the most challenging roles to sing in modern musical theater, and it requires a vocal versatility and power that Roger lacks.
The show is at least nice to look at, thanks to the sets and costumes by Christopher Oram and the lights by Neil Austin. Distressing as it may be, Grandage and the long slate of producers might well know exactly what they’re doing. Rather than upset audiences with challenging politics, they decided to put on a dazzling pageant. Maybe they understand Eva Perón more than I give them credit for and, like her, are just in it for the money.
EVITA | Marquis Theater |1535 Broadway at 45th St. | Mon.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $67-$142 | tickemaster.com or 877-250-2929
There are much more satisfying political fireworks on display over at the Schoenfeld, where a star-studded revival of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” is galvanizing the audience. You may be tempted to go for the cast, but you’ll stay for the whip-smart direction by Michael Wilson and the outstanding performances.
Set at the 1960 presidential nominating convention of an undisclosed party, the play tells the story of two candidates — former Secretary of State William Russell and Senator Joseph Cantwell — as they vie for the top prize, which isn’t just the nomination but also the blessing of former President Artie Hockstader. It’s shocking to see how Vidal’s view of politics 52 years ago seems so relevant today. The primary conflict is between Russell’s pragmatic and service-oriented approach and Cantwell’s anything-to-win, scorched earth strategy.
The messy quadrennial carnival/ bloodbath is full of potential scandals, factions heard from, and the incessant sausage-making that defines political life. Audience members will find themselves on the edge of their seats throughout, wondering how it will all turn out.
The cast is an utter treat. John Larroquette is understated yet powerful as Russell, a man slow to anger but lethal when his fury is unleashed. Eric McCormack gives one of the finest performances of the season as the conniving Cantwell. Beneath his charming surface is a chilling portrait of amorality that’s never less than splendid.
James Earl Jones seems to be having a blast as Hockstader, fully enjoying the power he holds even as the pressure on him has been lifted. Candice Bergen gives a subtle and contained performance as Russell’s wife, and Kerry Butler is terrific as the more blowsy Mrs. Cantwell. Angela Lansbury is priceless as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamage, chairman of the women’s division, who for all her feminine charm is a sly political operative.
Yes, very little has changed politically — or is likely to in the next 52 years. In fact, the end of the play brilliantly crystallizes our own time even as it recalls de Tocqueville’s fear that democracy, at least as he observed it in the mid-19th century America, was always at risk of elevating mediocrity. Some would say we’ve gone way beyond risk.
THE BEST MAN | Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre | 236 W. 45th St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $66.50-$131.50 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200