Don’t cry for Smith Center’s ‘Evita,’ even though Che overshadows her

The balance of power’s off.

After all, when the musical’s called “Evita” and the title character’s not the one dominating the stage, you know something’s a trifle amiss.

Not enough to derail “Evita,” to be sure, but just enough to make this national tour — based on the 2012 Broadway revival — a bit less than it could, and should, be.

Then again, that revival showcased Ricky Martin as Che, the Everyman narrator of the title character’s adventures, which follow the title character’s rise from “back-street girl, hustling and fighting,” to first lady of Argentina. (And the power behind president Juan Peron.)

So that may explain why the most commanding presence in this “Evita” is not Evita herself but Che.

Back when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice first collaborated on “Evita” — which, like their previous “Jesus Christ Superstar,” began as a concept album — the marriage of showbiz and politics hadn’t yet become a fact of life, as it is in our post-Ronald Reagan, post-Princess Diana world.

So the “Evita” tale of small-town nothing turned “spiritual leader of the nation” isn’t quite as incredible-but-true (well, sort of true) as it once was.

Yet the show still has the power to captivate, as this production demonstrates at times.

Even before “Evita” begins, a foglike mist envelops Reynolds Hall. Turns out it’s a key component of Neil Austin’s evocative lighting, which deploys multiple spotlights for not only literal but symbolic effect.

After all, the spotlight’s what young Eva Duarte craves. (Caroline Bowman plays the title role, except on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, when alternate Desi Oakley takes over.)

A small-town girl with big-city dreams, Eva parlays her relationship with a touring tango singer (Christopher Johnstone, in ace lounge lizard form) into a trip to Buenos Aires — and an acting career, working her way through a series of ever-more-useful lovers.

That is, until she meets Col. Juan Peron (a smooth Sean MacLaughlin), who’s clearly destined for bigger things — especially with Eva’s help.

But the first act (especially with the cuts this production makes) betrays “Evita’s” origins as a recording, moving so quickly that it’s difficult to get a sense of why Eva bewitches so many, so completely.

Many, but not all — as Che (Josh Young) reveals from the beginning, providing sardonic commentary on the circuslike whirlwind surrounding “Santa Evita” — as she’s known to her adoring descamisados, the “shirtless ones” who idolize her.

Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford (who established the Broadway blueprints followed by tour counterparts Seth Sklar-Heyn and Chris Bailey) employ a tango motif that sometimes works better in concept than execution.

But it keeps “Evita” ever on the move, skimming past the show’s drawbacks — especially a dramatic structure that too often describes, rather than depicts, pivotal events — to emphasize its strengths.

Chief among them: Lloyd Webber’s pop-to-opera score, which provides insinuating melodic contrast to Rice’s edgy, pointed lyrics.

Happily, this cast is more than capable of realizing “Evita’s” musical strengths, from the hard-working ensemble to Krystina Alabado, who wrings every poignant note from “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” in which Juan Peron’s previous flame laments her dismissal.

As that replacement, Bowman’s Evita never quite conveys the high-octane drive of a true spellbinder, but her own quieter energy reminds you of the small-town dreamer who’s always there, even in her most princessy moments.

Still, she’s no match for Young’s powerhouse Che.

A Tony nominee for his Judas in the recent “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival, Young has played Che before — at Canada’s Stratford Festival. Yet there’s no trace of been-there, done-that in his vibrant portrayal, which balances soaring vocals and a cynical, sadder-but-wiser perspective.

“Evita” may focus on Eva Peron — but, thanks to Young’s Che, we never forget that we’re seeing her through his eyes.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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