Can nothing be done, once and for all, to get rid of Evita? Here it is again, worse than ever and revived on Broadway for no logical reason except to cash in on Ricky Martin’s fame as a pop star, just as the 1996 movie cashed in (without much success) on Madonna’s celebrity as a prehistoric Lady Gaga. Haven’t we outgrown this bloated extravaganza? Evita is not much of a show, and Eva Duarte Peron, in retrospect, isn’t exactly an original one-woman success story. Today the press sells Evitas for a dime a dozen. They keep the New York Post in business.
But, ah, the spicy meat-pie sturm und drang surrounding the rise and fall of the one from Argentina—an ambitious slut who slept her way up from lower-class country roots through a minor career as a third-rate radio actress to the loftier ranks of society, the military and politics, and became, at 26, the wife (and power behind the throne) of South American dictator Juan Peron. Ruthless and aggressive, she saw what she wanted and wasted no time taking it, emptying the coffers of the country she pretended to love and raping the peasants who adored her while they looked the other way. Today, they’d yell “You go, girl!” and give her a reality show.
The only actress in history who was born to play this hypnotic mixture of monster and Madonna was the legendary Greek icon Melina Mercouri, who had the same glamorous and emotionally shattering political impact on Greece that Eva Peron had on Argentina (without the egotistical, self-serving grits and guile). But age and bad timing made that miracle an impossible dream. Besides, she could never have sung the rangy but leaden junk heap of a score by tone-deaf Andrew Lloyd Webber. Nor would she have wanted to. The mercurial Mercouri had taste. So we got Elaine Page in London, Patti Lupone in New York and Madonna in the 1996 movie that has gone down in the books as “the world’s longest music video.” Despite my acknowledged, self-admitted allergy to everything about Madonna, the role of a driving, relentless and seemingly indestructible force who stops at nothing to claw and screw her way to the top of the get-famous business while polishing off the art of marketable self-promotion fit her like a sequined G-string. Considering the cloying second-rateness of what she was forced to sing, she performed better in the movie than I’ve ever heard her otherwise. Whatever else one might gripe about in the sprawling, overproduced, clumsily directed and strangely emotionless Broadway revival currently on view at the cavernous Marquis Theatre in the Marriot Hotel, Argentine-born Elena Roger brings to the deadly score her own authenticity and sings like the clarion call of a jazz trumpet. I have no idea if she can act, because this is not a show about acting, but the girl can carry a tune.
The rest of the show is an ordeal. Thanks to the derivative music by Lloyd Webber and the repetitive lyrics by Tim Rice, Evita reduces a first-rate political saga to the benign status of a second-rate operetta. This problem is insurmountable, and even with the frenzied pageantry of director Michael Grandage and the occasional tango steps by choreographer Rob Ashford, their jobs represent little more than crowd control. The lifeless pomp all seems doubly punishing with all of the endless singing. Fewer than a dozen spoken sentences are uttered in the entire show, and my guess is that most audiences will long for at least one scene that is spoken, acted or felt with something other than surface posturing and perfect lip gloss. Nevertheless, it’s a musical soap opera filled with enough ballast and irony to earn a cult following, mainly because of one song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” that has become so famous the Evita fans could wear earplugs and still cheer. The rest of it is cookie-cutter exposition without insight, warts and all, so exaggerated that even the warts are glamorized.
It is rare to see and hear a biography of any historic significance trivialized by lyrics of such puerile banality. Against newsreel footage of Eva’s ticker-tape funeral procession, the show opens with a dirge (“Mourning all day and mourning all night/Falling all over ourselves to get all of the misery right”) and moves backward. (In the real parade, 2,000 people were injured and hospitalized trying to get a glimpse of the coffin.) When she first appears onstage from the provinces at age 15, penniless and illegitimate with all of her worldly belongings in a tiny cardboard suitcase but already equipped with the knowledge of how to use men to get ahead, Eva Duarte seems no bigger than a dwarf but sings like a dynamo. Eagerly seducing Magaldi the tango dancer and half of the military barracks of the Argentine army to escape her humble origins (“Who could ever get kicks/In the back of the sticks?” she wails), Eva goes through the ranks, man by man, as swiftly as a dose of salts. By the time she meets Peron at a 1944 fund-raiser for hurricane victims, throws his mistress out of the palace, and gets herself anointed First Lady of Argentina, she actually belts out “Let’s get this show on the road!” The awfulness is numbing. But it gets worse (“They need to adore me/so Christian Dior me!”). By the time of her highly publicized European postwar “rainbow tour” as Argentina’s good-will ambassador, the librettists appear to have thrown in the towel completely. Even the facts are embellished beyond credulity. She was warmly greeted in Spain, but there is no mention of the fact that in Switzerland they shattered her windshields with rocks and pelted her with tomatoes. In Italy, where they had been down the same road before, they equated her with Mussolini, but Che, the narrator and solitary Greek chorus who serves as both historic observer and symbol of the often misguided voice of the people, chimes lyrics that border on burlesque:
The news from Rome isn’t quite so good …
She hasn’t gone down like we thought she would.
She got a papal declaration and a kindly word …
Even if the crowds gave our lady the bird.
This is a distinguished musical? For the record, Eva did not get a papal declaration from Pope Pius XII and she returned home exhausted, disgraced and in the early stages of the cancer that finally claimed her. But her ambition never ebbed. When she died in 1952, at age 33, she was still badgering Peron to appoint her vice president of Argentina so she could officially rule the country by his side with equal power and take over as president in the event of his death. In death, she was more popular than ever. Draped in jewels and furs, the child of the masses had milked her subjects of so many “charitable donations” to her various causes that the only cause she ended up representing was herself. Dying at the height of Argentina’s Depression, she never had to answer for her sins and they forgave her everything. In the end, Peron was arrested and thrown out of the country by a military coup and Evita’s embalmed corpse removed from public view by the new dictatorship, hidden for 16 years in a crypt in Milan, then exhumed and flown to Madrid, where Peron and his third wife, Isabel, lived in the same apartment building as Ava Gardner and kept the body on a platform next to their dining room table. None of this is in Evita. Nor is the story’s coda—when Peron came out of exile in 1973, he was elected for the third time, died the following year, and his wife became the first female president in the Western Hemisphere—a dream that never came true for Evita herself. She ordered the return of Evita’s body from Spain and buried it next to Peron in a tomb in Buenos Aires, where it is hidden beneath two trap doors under a marble floor. Why settle for running a country, if you can become a saint?
Amazing, I think, how much more fascinating the real facts are than anything in Evita. “Stand Back, Buenos Aires” displays some of the best precision dancing currently on Broadway, and Elena Roger deserves praise for kicking up the ante on the kind of musical baggage that stretches and tortures the vocal chords without producing much lyrical beauty, harmony or melody. The men are mere appendages to Evita’s hyperactive DNA. Michael Cerveris has so little to do as Juan Peron that he seems like an afterthought. It’s a thankless role and always has been, although you need to see Jonathan Pryce in the film to grasp how much more life can be squeezed out of a bloodless enigma. Ricky Martin, in the underwritten but much bigger role of Che, fares no better. He sees Evita’s followers as deluded innocents—childish, needy, naïve and gullible—but his songs are little more than utilitarian devices to move the show along. Forced to emerge from the shadows and comment from the sidelines, prance from stage right to stage left, and climb scaffolds and lean over railings while singing sophomoric lyrics about the news of the day certainly abrogates the necessity for acting lessons. He looks like an all-American college athlete and sings without a trace of an accent, but he never seems relaxed or secure. Who can blame him, singing:
Fame on the wireless as far as it goes
Is all very well but every girl knows
She needs a man she can monopolize,
With fingers in dozens of different pies.
I’ll wait for the next CD.