The first Evita, Patti LuPone, was a force of nature. The latest Evita is a pretty cipher.
That assessment is not a slam on Solea Pfeiffer’s sly incarnation of Eva Perón. She wears the role with high-fashion hauteur in the new, insightful revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” which opened Thursday at the New York City Center and continues through November 24.
Pfeiffer never lets us see her sweat. Her transformation from an abused Argentinian waif (Maia Reficco plays the younger Eva) to the country’s first lady, from 1946 to her death in 1952, is predestined. She’s just going through the motions, the men, the couture.
It’s essential that Pfeiffer be a total knockout wearing Alejo Vietti’s lavish costumes, which includes an off-white silk slip designed to devastate. This clothes horse is so confident around the opposite sex that she even wears high heels despite being taller than her Juan Perón (Enrique Acevedo), her Che (Jason Gotay) or almost any other man on stage. Let the male runts of the world grovel. This Evita is not only going to rule, she’s going to tower.
Sammi Cannold’s direction introduces this Evita long before Pfeiffer shows up on stage. A white low-cut gown floats mid-air as the centerpiece of Jason Sherwood’s set design. The dress exists. It’s simply hanging there waiting for someone to come along to fill it. Cannold uses Sherwood’s deceptively simple set to startling effect at key moments. Those moments should not be explained in great detail here. They’re enchanting surprises. There are more flowers in this “Evita” than any staging of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Rafts of them rise and fall under Bradley King’s shifting lighting to provide more dazzle than anything seen on stage in the current “Moulin Rouge.”
Both Pfeiffer and Reficco have lovely singing voices. Only at the top of their range is the strain noticeable, and each voice turns metallic. No one ever said Evita had talent, except for promoting herself.
A devastating joke in this revival is how much Acevedo’s Perón resembles a raven-hair Sean Spicer. He’s even given a couple of tangos (choreography by Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff), which only help to stress the impression of amusing incompetence.
Gotay’s Che is more bemused narrator than future revolutionist. When Lloyd Webber’s music calls on him to deliver a traditional Broadway ballad, Gotay obliges. When that music turns to soft rock, he resorts to unsupported yelling.
This is my first “Evita” since seeing the original Broadway production in 1979. The musical survives because of Rice’s book. It’s economic and as vivid as a propaganda poster. Rice’s lyrics are less focused but serviceable.
“Evita” followed Lloyd Webber’s first Broadway musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” by a few years. It’s remarkable how little his formula would change over the decades. He manages to write one hit, sometimes two (“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Buenos Aires” here) for each show, reprises those catchy tunes multiple times, then pads the moments in between with music that evaporates into the next forgettable song. Regardless of how many times you’ve heard “Argentina” or “Buenos Aires,” it’s a relief to encounter them yet again after listening to the derivative noise around them.