Evita represents that point in the evolution of the Broadway musical when style became more important than substance. After World War II, musicals had started to become serious affairs. First came Rodgers and Hammerstein's plot-driven odes to humanity. A generation later, these shows were crossbred with the psychological angst of Freud, leading to Stephen Sondheim's sophisticated sighs over mankind's failings. Then came the backlash against the intellect: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera extravaganzas. In Jesus Christ Superstar, they reached the peak of giddy absurdity, with the Apostles inquiring, "What's the buzz? Tell me what's a-happening."
Then, in 1978, the phenomenally successful team came up with a new concept: the singing propaganda poster, in which history was refashioned as a series of staged postcards -- in this case, based on the rise of Argentina's beloved haute couture fascist, Eva Perón. The show takes her from grasping peasant girl to renowned actress and whore, to her death at age 33, on the verge of scaling the peaks of power as a combination Jackie Kennedy and Catherine the Great.
This is an extremely cold show, more likely to cultivate awe than affection. Its impassioned denizens are stick figures basking in attitude. Its creators, who don't have a clue as to any kind of moral complexity, relate the story in the superficial terms of a theme-park ride.
Lloyd Webber's Latin-accented score sounds like old Xavier Cugat samba recordings, reorchestrated for Saturday Night Fever. Rice's blunt lyrics have the trashy verve of Jacqueline Susann. Preparing to embark on a world tour, the implacable Evita proclaims: "I'm the savior, that's what they call me -- so Lauren Bacall me."
Original Broadway director Hal Prince transformed Lloyd Webber's recorded song cycle into a tapestry of stunning imagery. When audiences stagger out of Evita, they whistle the images: peasants marching with torches and banners; a golden Evita, coifed and gowned à la Grace Kelly, on a balcony, singing a lullaby to her adoring masses. The pop-eyed revolutionary, Che Guevara, anachronistically serving as commentator, schizophrenically bounces between adoration and loathing for the eponymous heroine.
At Beck Center, director Scott Spence and choreographer Gustavo E. Urdaneta compensate for the show's shallowness by giving it relentless energy and plentiful moments of visual poetry. This includes a chorus that appears to float like a giant sea squid unfolding its tentacles. Among the highlights are minions who literally leap through the air like Disney's centaurs to encase their mistress in Alison Hernan's resplendent gowns. In a moment that illuminates the entire show, the iron-willed she-monster and the work's disapproving conscience, Che, play out their conflict of revulsion and infatuation in a waltz where they almost, but not quite, touch.
Except for Michael Green's bland interpretation of Juan Perón, an exceptionally passionate cast melts a usually frozen show. Dan Folino was busy being born when Mandy Patinkin played Che on Broadway as a musical nervous breakdown. Folino, in the same role, moves with dangerous grace, performing and singing with the hypnotic, staring intensity of a musical Rasputin. If he fails to land in the big time, it's further proof of an unjust universe. Equaling his satanic energy is Sandra Emerick in the title role. A rare combination of femininity and forceful stage presence, Emerick blends Broadway original Patti LuPone's diamond-hard arrogance with Hollywood incarnation Madonna's glittering, frosty determination.
Until Cleveland gets a tour of The Producers, Evita will have to do as the area's favorite all-singing, all-dancing dictator.
The Charenton Theater Company specializes in the Beat Generation's works of rebellion and alienation. These are the pieces that exploded the cozy ruminations on class and showbiz eccentrics, perpetrated a generation earlier by the likes of Noël Coward and Kaufman and Hart.
In a stroke of genius, Charenton is sending Edward Albee's one-act play, The Zoo Story, on a "Park Bench Tour" through Cleveland parks. It's a work that's suited to the sylvan delights of yapping dogs, squalling infants, and bemused joggers. Despite its one-hour length, the play is a towering giant -- comic and horrifying at the same time. It tells of an ultimately cosmic confrontation between a respectful and modest citizen (with two parakeets, two daughters, and one wife) and a seething young derelict trying to break through the emotional isolation of his life. It ends in a life-and-death struggle over a park bench.
The play remains one of the freshest works of the last century. With a squalid eloquence and a keen intuition of humanity, it is Albee's most intense, direct work.
The present production is only slightly marred by director Greg Vovos's tendency to overplay the broad comedy at the expense of the angst. Charles Kartali and Andrew Narten's admirable performances possess all the hurt and compressed hysteria to vividly illustrate Tennessee Williams's adage that "we're all prisoners in our own skin."