Evita Captivates the Crowd at the Adrienne Arsht Center

Anyone who's unaware might find it easy to dismiss Evita as yet another musical that's run its course -- or worse, a one-hit stage show with a terrific title tune but an otherwise well-worn narrative. But the terrific touring version that opened at the Arscht Tuesday night proved nothing could be further from the truth. Recently revived on Broadway for the first time in 30 years, this Evita for the new millennium is feisty, fast-paced and -- given a world filled with tyrants, political turmoil, and a superficial celebrity culture - more relevant as ever.

Contrary to the notion that its signature song "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" is the only takeaway tune, this new Evita emphasizes an exceptional musical score, all of which is essential to the narrative and the whirlwind of non-stop action that transpires onstage. A pop opera of epic proportions, the dialogue is expressed in song, and given the fact that nearly two decades transpire in a relatively short period of time - approximately two hours, 20 minutes including intermission - every passage becomes essential to the story line. The burden for ensuring continuity falls mainly to the two leads - Evita, of course, and the voice of her contentious confidant and audience interpreter, the ubiquitous Che. While the latter is given the task of narrating the musical's sequence of events and underscoring the conflicted heroine's motives and machinations, it's also left to Evita to win the sympathies of the audience much the same way she wins the adulation of Argentina's working masses.

Happily, Caroline Bowman in the title role is well up to the task. Her Evita is confident, compassionate and yet surprisingly vulnerable, a status that reflects the fact she was born out of wedlock and not of privileged lineage. It's not an easy task; despite the indelible Evita image that's been etched in film, in the history books and, of course, in this well-trod musical, Bowman must imbue her own interpretation and give the audience a living, breathing incarnation of a woman whose ambitions often conflicted with her image as a champion of the proletariat. In Bowman's hands, both sides of Evita's conflicted personality are effectively conveyed, from her sweeping entrance on the presidential balcony prior to addressing her adoring masses to the ailing first lady whose highly touted Rainbow Tour of Europe eventually falters and whose failed bid for the vice presidency is doomed due to illness and political instability.

Sean MacLaughlin as the powerful Peron takes a mostly secondary role in this trajectory, a knowing, somewhat arrogant individual who happily looks on as his wife wins public backing, and with it, helps secure his own grasp on the presidency. His visage is one of staunch defiance, a determined individual intent on carving his own imprint on a post war world. MacLaughlin also captures his humanity as well, a man who loves his wife as much as he admires her, and appreciates her role in helping to shape his own legacy. When Evita abruptly collapses as her bout with cancer starts to take its toll, he literally soars to her side, all vestiges of grace and strength succumbing to this very human tragedy.

Likewise, in the hands of a less masterful director, Josh Young's Che could easily steal the show, given his central role as its narrator. And Young does carve a powerful impression. With a magnificent operatic voice capable of spanning several octaves, he remains a wily presence, knowing and yet intent on remaining non-judgmental. Instead, director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford integrate him into the action rather than setting him apart as an indifferent observer. In one remarkable scene Che addresses Evita and then backs away, only to be seamlessly replaced by Peron, as if they were interchangeable and polar extremes of one individual. In a show that's staged in as frenzied a manner as this, Che becomes the bond that ensures the flow.

Still, it's all too easy to miss the fine details and biographical sound bites in a true life tale that's as condensed as this. It's a huge storyline to pack in when you have a timeline that begins when our heroine is age 15, begins an unexpected affair with a charismatic tango singer and subsequently meets the distinguished army officer Juan Peron at a fundraiser for victims of a recent earthquake... before jumping headfirst into her tumultuous reign as first lady. It's a wise move then to integrate vintage newsreel footage to add to the immediacy and help shape the story with an authenticity that affirms the urgency and intensity.

For those who never saw it before -- and, notably too, those who saw it during its original run - Evita is an essential experience. The rest of us just may cry for you if you fail to see it.

Evita plays in the Ziff Opera House at the Adrience Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County through Sunday, June 1. Tickets start at $26. For tickets visit arshtcenter.org or call the Box Office at 305-949-6722.

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