Historical figures make tricky subjects for musicals for many reasons, but when you are trying to tell the story of a real-live person there is no medium more unreal than a musical.
So if you are chucking realism and historical accuracy out the window right from the beginning you had better have something pretty nifty to fall back on.
That something nifty never really materializes in the national touring production of “Evita,” which is now playing at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis through Oct. 20. The result is a show that has more negatives than positives.
Most of the problems lie in the musical itself, which doesn’t hold up well as it is creeping up on 40 years since its debut.
For those unaware, “Evita” is the story of Eva Peron (played by Caroline Bowman), a woman who rose from anonymity to become the beloved First Lady of Argentina during the late 1940s.
She was a fairly well-known singer and actress when she met her husband, future president Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin), but she quickly captivated the public’s imagination with her beauty, style, and bold personality.
She was a problematic figure though, as we are constantly reminded by the humble, working-class narrator Che (Josh Young), as Eva dripped with diamonds and furs while the country went bankrupt and the people went hungry.
“Evita” has a fairly acrid, borderline-sexist account of Eva’s rise to power as she essentially sleeps her way to the top (the number “Goodnight and Thank You” has Eva dispatching a chorus of lovers every time she encounters a more promising mate), and once there, she is portrayed as erratic with mood swings and bouts of megalomania.
For large swaths of the show, the message seems to be “Women. sigh Am I right?”
I think the show is also banking on some degree of audience familiarity with Eva, as the prominent international figure had died from cancer only about 25 years before “Evita” was written; which, by comparison, is about the same historical distance we have from Princess Diana. Now, most of the audience walks out Googling Eva Peron to see if she actually existed.
“Evita” was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and they do have some moments of clarity where they take aim at bigger themes like the cult of personality and how celebrity culture has a corrosive effect on both the person in the spotlight and their throngs of admirers. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between.
I think the only way “Evita” works is if you have a truly spectacular and magnetic performer in the title role who can convey the transcendent qualities of such a dynamic figure. Otherwise, the whole thing just falls apart. Bowman is a fine performer but isn’t someone who is able to put this whole show on her back.
Musically “Evita” is surprisingly forgettable with one massively huge exception. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is a truly great song. So great, in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the main reason the show has endured as long as it has. The chorus is a little bit of Broadway perfection.
We have reached the point now where “Evita” has been around longer than the real Eva Peron was and I have to believe that, if given the chance, Eva would have aged a whole lot more gracefully.
“Evita” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through Oct. 20. For tickets, call (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.