We could go on for days debating the artistic merit and historical accuracy of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s blockbuster rock opera “Evita,” a politically-charged, propulsive, sweet and sour work that has divided critics since its debut as a concept album.
That being said, it is hard to deny that the timeliness of the musical, which closely examines the life and legacy of Eva Perón, an extremely divisive political icon who came to power amid a surge of populist anger, underwent a Cinderella transformation from poor villager to the fashionable, globe-trotting First Lady of Argentina and died from cancer at age 33.
It is also far easier today to appreciate the musical itself. Four decades ago, many objected to its reliance on rock music and attempt to humanize such a polarizing figure. The self-conscious original staging by director Hal Prince also did not help.
Seven years following a disappointing Broadway revival led by Ricky Martin, who could not act, and Elena Roger, who could not sing, “Evita” has returned to New York just in time for Eva Perón’s centennial and the musical’s 40th anniversary via a stylish, smart and musically and vocally outstanding two-week, concert-style production at City Center.
As with other musicals presented at City Center — such as through its much beloved Encores! Series — “Evita” features a large orchestra. The cast is led primarily by little-known but very talented Latin artists. (Some recent regional productions of “Evita” have faced criticism for casting non-Latin actors.)
The direction is by Sammi Cannold, who makes the bold and surprisingly effective choice of splitting Eva into a younger self (Maia Reficco) and older self (Solea Pfeiffer), which accentuates the character’s change in behavior as she swiftly climbs the social ladder. Later in the show, the younger version materializes like a ghost. Cannold also emphasizes instances of sexism and sexual abuse.
The musical’s narrator (Jason Gotay) has been changed from the socialist revolutionary Che Guevara to a contemporary observer who questions and criticizes Eva from a safe distance.
Visually, the spare and sleek production is defined by the sparking ball gown that Eva wears during the inauguration of her husband, Juan Perón (Enrique Acevedo) and as she sings the anthem “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Like a monument, it hangs in the air before the performance begins and is later violently tattered as Eva falls to illness.
Pfeiffer overplays Eva’s iciness and cruelty, but she is a stunning performer who more than ably handles an extraordinarily difficult score. Gotay, who also has a beautiful voice, makes for a searching, less disdainful, more sensitive counterpart.
Speaking as someone who did not see the original Broadway production with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, this is the best staging of “Evita” that I have encountered to date – and I hard time believing I will see a better one anytime soon.
“Evita” runs at City Center through Nov. 24. W. 55th St. between 7th and 6th Aves., nycitycenter.org