How much of a difference can one performer make? That's the question I was left to ponder while walking out of the strangely lifeless revival of Evita that's currently packing them in at the Marquis Theater in New York. I had seen this production during its London run and was generally positive about it, particularly regarding the dynamic central performance from Argentinian spitfire Elena Roger. (Read my review of the London production.)
So, I was genuinely looking forward to seeing the production again, now that it has made the trek across the pond. There was, however, a bit of a bump in my road to the Marquis, as I was originally scheduled to see one of the performances that got "rained out," as it were. As you may have heard, the producers of Evita had to cancel two performances because the "deluge curtain," part of a theater's fire protection system, was accidentally triggered, which flooded the stage, necessitating a two-day clean-up process.
Since I was already in the city to see some other shows, I hustled over to the Marquis box office to exchange my ticket for another performance. Well, in my absent-mindedness, I chose a matinee performance, momentarily forgetting that the actress who plays Eva Peron historically doesn't do matinees. Which means I didn't see Elena Roger again but rather Christine DiCicco, the Eva alternate. DiCicco was never less than professional, and at times was downright impressive in terms of her energy level and vocal prowess. What she wasn't was electrifying, which Elena Roger decidedly was when I saw the show in 2006.
The experience put me in mind of seeing the recent revival of A Little Night Music both with Catherine Zeta-Jones (read my review) and then Bernadette Peters (read my review) in the central role of Desiree Armfeldt. With Zeta-Jones, the show was presentable but uninspired. With Peters, the show came to vibrant life. The cast was otherwise almost exactly the same, as were the members of the production staff. But Peters, like the rising tide, lifted all of the boats, whereas Zeta-Jones was more like an anchor dragging the show down and keeping it from achieving its full forward speed.
I genuinely hope to get back and see this production of Evita again to see if, perhaps, it was Elena Roger who made all the difference in London. That would also give me the opportunity to more fully put Ricky Martin's somewhat spotty performance as Che, the show's sardonic narrator, into context. Don't get me wrong: Martin is by far the most entertaining part of the current production. He's animated, engaging, mischievous, and boasts a genuinely strong and resonant musical-theater-quality singing voice. But he did frequently allow his mannerisms to overshadow his sense of characterization, and he noticeably flubbed his lyrics on more than one occasion. It was almost as though he was trying to make up for the lack of energy in the production as a whole. I got the sense that, if he had just relaxed a bit more and trusted the material, he could have been outstanding. (Parenthetically, I was very glad to see that, despite the fact that Martin is clearly the draw here, the production still gives Eva the final bow during the curtain call.)
But the more I think about it, the more I have trouble ascribing the listless nature of this production to the change in the central player. Something else seems to have been lost in the translation from London to Broadway. The production as a whole lacks focus and a sense of forward motion, and those deficits must fall at the feet of director Michael Grandage. The production remains visually impressive (with sets and costumes by Christopher Oram and lighting by Neil Austin), but the scenes and characterizations lack cohesion, as though there were no sure hand at the helm. Even Rob Ashford's choreography, which I found it thrilling in London, here seemed resolutely earthbound, although thematically the movements seemed more restrained and idiomatic than some of his more recent Broadway work.
One final note: it's really interesting to have the chance to see both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita on Broadway at the same time. (Read my review of JCS here.) It's a sort of sobering reminder that, at one point in his career, Andrew Lloyd Webber actually made challenging choices and used interesting musical devices, mostly when he was paired up with lyricist Tim Rice. It makes me wonder what could happen if Sir Andrew ever teamed up again with a lyricist who actually made him think.