PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Evita and Its Touch of Star Quality
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Evita, starring Elena Roger, Ricky Martin and Michael Cerveris.
For the second time in two weeks, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice took to the stage of a New York theatre and welcomed one of their first-borns back to Broadway — Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) at the Neil Simon on March 22 and Evita (1979) at the Marriott Marquis on April 5.
Then, if you can factor in the long-running hits they did with other writers — Rice's The Lion King (1997) at the Minskoff, and Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (1988) still at the Majestic — this new addition gives them the rarefied distinction of having three shows running simultaneously on Broadway.
But that highly elite club will soon need an annex. Coming up fast on the outside is an American upstart and occasional Rice collaborator, Alan Menken, who arrives on the last day of the season with his Leap of Faith joining his Newsies: The Musical from this season and his Sister Act from last.
It's nice to make history with history, even this fanciful facsimile of how Maria Eva Duarte went from whore to madonna, from backstreet to sainthood, in 33 years — the same time allowed Jesus Christ Superstar, come to think of it.
It's a complicated and politically complex cavalcade, which Lloyd Webber and Rice ride over — practically gallop over — with a strong musical line. One may have forgotten what a strong score it is, but put out to pasture for a while, the songs spring back more vivid than you remember, coming at you like Oklahoma! — well, not quite, but certainly old friends: "High Flying, Adored," "A New Argentina," "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," "Buenos Aires" and, late-arriving from the film version, the aching, heart-breaking Oscar-winning "You Must Love Me."
Two of the best songs are given to subsidiary characters, who are promptly and rather unceremoniously dismissed from the show, once Eva (Elena Roger) meets — after quite a rompish ronde up the social ladder — Juan Peron (Michael Cerveris): The transporting "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" is used to introduce her tango-singing Square One, Magaldi (Max von Essen), and the haunting "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" is sung by Peron's Mistress (Rachel Potter) on her way out of his life.
Running alongside the chaotic storyline is a character called Che, which happens to be Spanish colloquial slang for "mate," "pal," "dude." In the original Broadway production, director Harold Prince made that read "Che Guevara" and had a Tony-winning Mandy Patinkin swagger around the stage in a beard and battle-fatigues. In this reading, Che is stuck with a mustache, Henley nightshirt and suspenders, a man of the people played by Ricky Martin.
"Of course, ever since the movie, he hasn't been Che Guevara, and he wasn't Che Guevara in my 2006 production in London," pointed out Michael Grandage, who has remounted the show on these shores. "Che is an Everyman figure. It's exactly what Tim and Andrew wrote and it's what they've gotten back ever since the Alan Parker movie and the 2006 production. And here we are in 2012, with this figure who is in every scene as Everyman. What it is, is less restricting than Che Guevara. If you're just Che Guevara, you're Che Guevara in every scene, but in this you can come on with a different point of view and be able to reflect the intention of where you are in each individual scene. It's actually a wonderful and helpful device."
Getting rid of Guevara is typical of the order and clarity Grandage brought aboard. It is a stately, straightforward, handsome epic that conveys the chaos without the clutter. Christopher Oram's stylish set — a wrap-around balcony — leaves a comfortably wide playing area below, with doors opening in glares of light and enabling choreographer Rob Ashford to move the dance traffic — rich in tango — with ease and energy.
Grandage, Ashford and the Olivier Award-nominated Roger all transferred from the London production. "It's different in quite a few ways," the director noted, "not least the casting changes all around mean you start a relationship with a whole lot of actors who bring something different to the room. By definition, everything that Ricky Martin and Michael Cerveris have brought has changed everything — Elena, too."
A mist hovers atmospherically over the stage, working as well in the dark as in the light, enhancing the make-believe of it all. It's there at the beginning when Che emerges from a mass of mourners and beckons to Eva, who drops her black veil and becomes Evita. And it's there at the top of the second act in a chandelier glow when she descends to the balcony to deliver her "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Audiences can't resist applauding the return of an icon, throwing up her arms in rapture.
Roger still had some chandelier glow when she finally reached the after-party seven flights up in the Marriott Hotel. "I was nervous, I was nervous, I was nervous," she said excitedly, "but it was okay because I could feel the audience was with us all the time, laughing, applauding. I could feel their emotions out there. That was nice."
A fraction over five feet, Roger is no stranger to pint-sized powerhouses. After her year-run as Evita, she changed accents in midstream and won an Olivier Award for Piaf. Her last Olivier nomination was for an Italian (Fosca in Passion). But Eva Peron remains her most taxing role, emotionally and vocally.
"It's hard," she admitted. "Once you have it, it's fine — but then, if you're the least bit tired, your voice is difficult to do. I'm from Argentina so already I have quite an emotional investment in the show. And I have to sing this huge range. It's more difficult than Piaf. At least in Piaf, there was more real life."
Because of the demands of the role, she does only six performances a week. Her standby, Christina DeCicco, handles the Wednesday evening and Saturday matinee performances, and Roger has had the out-of-body chance to see DeCicco on stage.
"I was very excited to watch it, and I wanted to," Roger said. "I think it's very useful because, when you're doing a show, you never get a chance to see it. If you're off, you're sick and in bed. Because I can see her, I can see the whole play, and I realize how complicated it is. Sometimes we're not conscious about how pretty something could be with the lighting. You don't know what's going on upstage when you're the one on stage."
Debuting in a strange new country is a little daunting for a young actress, but her co-stars have made her feel comfortable. "Reeky is so professional — he likes working," she said in her delicious accent. "It's a pleasure to know him. His soul is beautiful, and, as a person, he is incredible."
Having grown up with the Peron legend, Roger is a little bemused by Cerveris' homework on the role. "He did so much research to do Peron. When I go to his dressing room, I laugh because he has all those pictures, and he has a lot of stuff from Argentina up there — Juan Peron, Evita — and he's buying tango recordings. If you go to his dressing room, it's like being in a very small flat in Argentina."
Cerveris agreed. "I have to say that some of my finest work on this show is my dressing room. Eric, my dresser, and I try to evoke Argentina, and I think we've done a good job. Elena calls it my bulin, which is the Argentine word for a room for a rendezvous.
"The whole production has been a thrill and incredibly hard work, but easy in such a fantastic way and bounded in such an immediate and meaningful way."
For a standby, DeCicco clucked with contentment: "Are you kidding? It's Eva Peron, twice a week. Being a standby is a little bit calmer than being an understudy because you know you have performances and you know if you do your work it pays off.
"Elena's very sweet. I love watching her perform. I've learned a lot from her. She's been incredible and tremendous and very kind and very giving. I've certainly asked her a lot of questions, and she has been wonderful in providing every single answer. Then, it's just figuring it out as an actor." One nice thing: they've cut her some slack about duplicating Roger's authentic Argentine. "We don't have to do a Spanish accent. They've been fantastic about it. 'Well, you're not Argentine, so don't do it.'"
Martin, who's top-billed but defers to Roger at the curtain call, came late to the party, made a fast pass through the revelers smiling broadly and left.
What press activity there was came at the start of the evening, with the red carpet in the alleyway in front of the hotel getting a heavy workout from celebrities.
Starting with: Debra Messing and Will Chase of "Smash," Brian Boitano, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rent's Anthony Rapp, producer-actor Michael A. Alden, Love Never Dies' Sierra Boggess, Relatively Speaking's Marlo Thomas and hubby Phil Donahue, comedienne Kathy Griffin, Vogue's Anna Wintour, Jill Paice, Alexandra Silber, Elizabeth Stanley, Tony winner David Hyde Pierce and Brian Hargrove, Barbara Walters in shocking pink and subdued manner ("No, Evita was a little before my time"), Tonya Pinkins, CBS's Gayle King, Come Fly Away's Karine Plantadit-Bageot, director Lonny Price (toiling on his Merrily We Roll Along documentary), Cheyenne Jackson ("I just spent this last year writing an album. We haven't decided on a title yet"), Harvey Evans, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey and a fit-as-a-fiddle-looking Michael Douglas.
Also: John Noble, Adamari Lopez, Desmond Child, Bernie Williams, Amy Fine Collins with daughter Flora, Ruth Wilson, John Quinones, Rafael Marquez and Jaydy Michel, Maggie Grace, Elizabeth Vargas, Andy Cohen and Khrystyne Haje.
Bryan Batt arrived with his Love Letters pen-pal, Patricia Clarkson, and his life partner Tom Clanfichi: "Tom and I met 23 years ago doing Evita at the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, OH — and we've been together ever since. I was Che and he was a Magaldi understudy. So we had to come tonight."
"I caught a preview and came back," admitted Vanessa Williams. "Ricky's enunciation is great. I was completely blown away by it. You can understand every word."
The Tony-nominated Maria of Broadway's last West Side Story, Josefina Scaglione, headed up a large Latin contingent that included Jorge Arguello and Susan Sega, Karla Monroig and Tommy Torres, Marco Zunino and Bianca Marroquin, Ruben Blades ("I'm here for Ricky and Puerto Rico") and Luba Mason.
Constantine Maroulis recognized there was a role for him in Evita but is now too concentrated on his Jekyll & Hyde ("We start rehearsing in August, hit the road a bit and be back here the end of the year"). Similarly, lyricist-director David Zippel said he's planning to tour his Primary Stages show, The Best Is Yet To Come: The Music of Cy Coleman, and, hopefully, bring it in.
Richard Jay-Alexander, the first to put Ricky Martin on Broadway (in Les Miserables years ago), starts directing Kristin Chenoweth April 7 for her 19-city tour that will begin May 9 in Seattle.
Lin-Manuel Miranda with wife Vanessa, was reeling from the news he got about Evita's missing corpse, alluded to in the show's last lines and amplified by a friend after the show. "Google it," he challenged.
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