Having seen many fine productions there, I had high hopes that Drury Lane would find a way to do something really interesting with this big musical on its small stage. So I came to Evita, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best musicals, with high hopes. This is a clever show, with tons of depth to be mined by director and cast alike. You can’t go wrong with Tim Rice lyrics, after all. And Webber, himself, is in top form musically here. It can be a tremendous experience.
When the curtain went up, it looked like my high hopes would be realized when Richard Bermudez (Che) launched into “Oh, What a Circus.” It is very easy to say nice things about Bermudez, not only does he look the part, and do all the heavy lifting as the show’s narrator, he has all the vocal chops and then some. Here he seemed to be doing his level best to channel Mandy Patinkin’s performance on the LA Cast album vocally, with even some of the same inflections. He absolutely crushed this throughout.
The Drury Lane chorus performers were equally strong. This cast has some incredible ensemble singing and it’s nice because Lloyd Webber’s score gives them many opportunities to shine vocally. You noticed that throughout this production. Whenever they got an opportunity to harmonize, they absolutely knocked the challenging and sometimes dissonant harmonies out of the park. You actively looked forward to them coming on stage to do something.
Alas this ended with the arrival of Evita, herself, Michelle Aravena, who I must add looked absolutely terrific throughout. I wish I could say more nice about her, but she was horribly miscast here. This is not the right part for her and she was in over her head.
To begin with, her tone and range is not right for this. She has the same sort of thin soprano voice as the old-time movie musical star Kathryn Grayson, a really harsh, sharp, cutting tone. This is combined with really dodgy pitch, especially during the many, many recitative sections in this show, portions are flat or sharp or just not on. It’s very much a character voice, like a Disney cartoon, and she seemed to want to err on the side of talk-singing in many places, which is probably safer for her as she’s not hitting the notes. But, sadly, her desire to act this rather than sing it made her miss downbeats, get off track with the score and miss important emotional moments within the storyline. And there were just some really bizarre rhythmic and line-reading choices in the songs that again, got her way off the music and it just really felt out of control and disturbing.
I think she could excel in a part requiring less vocal range. She just doesn’t have the depth of tone or the low alto notes that this part requires as was glaringly obvious during “Buenos Aries.” She also was so broad in some of the acting choices that the performance was, again, cartoonish, unsexy, and not compelling and I’m just going to stop beating her up now. But you can’t have a good production of Evita with an Evita this badly cast. It was a big hole in the center of this show even though I’m sure she tried her best.
Paul Aguirre’s Augustin Magaldi was another charming spot in this production. He didn’t go with the usual interpretation as smarmy Elvis or Vegas lounge act and instead played a more traditional and overblown tango singer. He was delightful and sang terrifically well but the trio bombed because of Aravena refusing to sing in unison with him and Bermudez and making bizarro rhythmic choices.
Then enter the other best thing about this production. In the thankless part of Juan Peron comes Sean MacLaughlin, who has all the vocal chops and charisma for days. The guys are three for three here and they all killed every moment. MacLaughlin captures all of Peron’s swagger, roving eye, wavering courage and occasional insight perfectly. Every time he’s on stage you are so, so happy he’s there.
And then, the other original big hit song of the show. The song that hit 18 and 7 on pop charts in two different decades. It was pretty clear that they chose Keila Hamed-Ramos because she has the vocal tone of a fourteen-year-old or perhaps younger. But they threw her under the bus so hard giving her a part where she couldn’t hit the high notes. What is it with casting the women in this show? It’s not fair. I felt so bad for her standing there in her underwear and flailing and a hit song falling flat.
While I was hoping this production would feel big. It didn’t. And part of it was the really odd choice they had of filling up sections of the very small stage with building facades. If they’d just backed them off a bit they would have bought feet of visual space and maybe been able to give people more interesting things to do than marching in circles. A New Argentina, which should have sent us off excited into the break just sort of laid there.
I’m going to say the technical stuff was spot-on here. The set (Michael Schweikardt) looked terrific even it if it was overwhelming. The lighting (Yeal Lubetsky) was nice. The sound (Ray Nardelli) was great, you could hear every note, even when you didn’t want to. And the costumes (Ryan Park) were excellent period snapshots. Nice all the way around.
And then we had to come back from intermission. And we knew what was coming. And I will give Aravena this, she was radiant in her white gown and looked like an angel as she should have. She clearly worked on her two big songs in this show. They were the best things she did. Not good. But the best she did. She tried and stayed on pitch for these at least. The movie-added “You Must Love Me” was better than “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” but both were on pitch.
Highlights of the second act included everything Che did and especially “And the Money Kept Rolling in”, that is the absolute showstopper of this entire production. It was legitimately great, the costume changes and clever flag switching during “Rainbow Tour” as well as the rich people chorus, and “She is a Diamond”.
Despite the many good things in this production – all the boys and the chorus – I can’t recommend it. Especially if you love this show, or if you just want to see everyone do really well. The women here are set up to fail and they can’t rise above it. So maybe wait until the next show at Drury Lane.
The show runs from now until March 20, 2022. Tickets are available at the Drury Lane Box Office.