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As Long as We Remember...

October 30, 2005

Brava, "Evita!"

Roy Meachum

Hal Prince may very well be today's most celebrated Broadway talent, at least as measured by his prizes. For all I know, he could have built a special annex to house his 20 - count them - 20 Tony Awards.

"Pajama Game" not only brought the-then producer his first Antoinette Perry laurel, it also made me a fan. I caught the show on my way to Fort Benning, courtesy of Army buddy Eddie Fisher.

Once civilianized, my admiration increased with multiple visits to the National Theatre's "Damn Yankees," also his handiwork. In the same house we came permanently apart because of my bland reaction to "Company," a show he both produced and directed for the historic stage's grand reopening.

It helped not at all that the Stephen Sondheim creation had racked up a pair of those precious Tonys. I will now publicly admit, dear readers, the fault lay within me. I simply don't like Mr. Sondheim's work; it strikes me as brittle and intellectual, lacking feeling almost entirely.

The Kennedy Center's revival of "A Little Night Music," by the aforementioned composer/librettist and directed by Mr. Prince, brought the reality home. On the way out that night I said to the Opera House's manager:

"Oh, Dick, if only style were all!"

The last time I received a forceful reaction from Broadway's reigning guru came from another Sondheim show. "Pacific Overtures," which he directed, struck me as the chaotic attempt to foist empty dazzle and questionable taste on an unsuspecting public. The show ran about six months on the Great White Way and did produce a pair of Tonys, for costume and set designs. That 's all.

Despite our past confrontations, I remain a great admirer of the man responsible for my very favorite musical, "Cabaret," which is trailed only slightly by "Evita," the reason for this essay.

Mr. Prince collaborated in recreating his original version of the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece that arrived in Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre last Tuesday. It will leave, come hell or high gas prices, trundling along to its next stop, after next Sunday's performance.

Everyone, I assume, must be thoroughly familiar with "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina;" it has become a personal hymn for many persons, mostly of the female persuasion. A German married to an Egyptian journalist, living in Cairo, told me she half-whispered and sung the number the last time her jet had lifted off the Berlin tarmac.

As you must know, but please allow me to repeat, "Evita" was Senora Peron when all the world goggled over the form of National Socialism that both tamed and bankrupted South America's richest nation.

She played no small role, as the musical explores, in structuring the reign of Juan Peron, her husband, who may indeed have loved the sometime actress but loved pre-teen girls more. That's in the script.

The story dramatizes exceedingly, as shows should do, the rise of a small town girl whose greatest attribute is ambition. And was the former Eva Duarte ambitious! No question. This is a Cinderella tale with both grit and glamour; it includes one of those extended death scenes, usually taboo on Broadway.

Besides the aforementioned Perons, the evening's chief other character was loosely based on Che Guevara. In previous versions I've visited the actors who were selected because of their resemblance to the sometime Argentine physician turned world-famous revolutionary. Not this time.

Keith Byron Kirk's hefty body betrays any attempt to pass him off as the figure known to generations, on both the right and the left. Then there's the matter of his face: Mr. Kirk is African American, Dr. Guevara was not.

But, my, can this Che sing. His voice cradles Andrew Lloyd Weber's music while he illuminates Tim Rice's lyrics, occasionally switching into a tone that no one else could create.

Opening night's Evita, Kathy Voytko, was a thrilling and superb leading lady; but Ms. Voytko departed two days later when her contract expired. I have little doubt her replacement weighed in with similar authority and strength, but I don't know for sure.

Philip Hernandez still triumphs as the "inadmirable" husband to our heroine and the rest of the cast sings, dances and moves along with the kind of pace and grace you might expect when Hal Prince attaches his name to anything.

For me, by the way, "Evita" was Mr. Weber's last really good show; not by coincidence it was the last product of his partnership with Mr. Rice. Too bad.

I have nothing but good things to say about the Hippodrome Theatre's latest offering, except it exits too soon. You have only until next weekend to hustle on down I-70 and see what I'm shouting about. Do!

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