A Fabulous New Evita Comes to New York City Center
Solea Pfeiffer stars in Sammi Cannold's revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice classic.
The New York City Center revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita might be my favorite show of 2019. It's a two-week run that was put together in 10 days, but you'd never know that from the high caliber of Sammi Cannold's production, which not only boasts striking visuals and fascinating ideas, but a star-making performance from leading lady Solea Pfeiffer.
Evita is a star-making show, but you really have to earn it. Even Patti LuPone, who won a Tony for it, called the demands of the score, with notes that often land in an octave above middle C, "frightening" in her memoir. She and costar Mandy Patinkin became talks of the town back when it premiered in 1979, but the leads of the 2012 revival, Elena Roger and Ricky Martin, became the laughingstock of Broadway because they couldn't sing it. Cannold has a bold concept to explore both the ascent and decline of Argentine first lady Eva Perón, and a cast that's canny enough to take them across the finish line.
The most visible change is the casting of two actors to play Eva. Nineteen-year-old Maia Reficco plays Eva at her most vulnerable, as a teenager in Junín with dreams of the big city and an eye on the much-older tango singer Magaldi (Philip Hernández). Pfeiffer steps in as Eva begins her climb, sleeping her way up the ladder until she meets Colonel Juan Perón (Enrique Acevedo). They fall in love, he gets elected president with her assistance, and she wraps the whole country around her little finger. Narrating the tale is a devilish revolutionary named Che (Jason Gotay, a truly exciting firebrand).
I was skeptical of the dual Eva concept until I saw it, and am very surprised to say that it works better than it has any right to. It gives older Eva a conscience — she's always trailed by and looking back on her younger self, a girl affected by multiple sexual assaults (this particular through line could be better developed than just relying on Emily Maltby and Valeria Solomonoff's otherwise authentically Latin choreography to depict it). Bradley King lights these moments starkly, creating a striking mise-en-scène when blended with Jason Sherwood's austere set. The one downside is that Reficco only has a few early moments to show off her big voice before becoming a wordless spectator.
Pfeiffer is the main attraction, of course, and her performance is so lived-in that you'd never know she had so little time to develop it. Her Eva is completely ruthless, stone-faced, and icy, determined to do whatever she can to get herself to the top, no matter how many people she has to use or betray in the process. In later scenes, she sheds all this to find a lovely vulnerability as Eva falls ill with cancer. She's got star quality to spare — and, oh yeah, she sings the hell out of it, hitting those crazy notes in Lloyd Webber's score like it's nothing. In short, she's the Eva of our dreams.
This whole production, in fact, was pretty much the Evita of my dreams, courtesy of a director who clearly loves the material but doesn't feel overly precious about it. Cannold's revival is ready for a Broadway transfer right off the bat, and I really hope it gets there.