Stage review: CLO’s ‘Evita’ is a night of passion at the Benedum

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It’s steamy inside the Benedum Center this week, with a reimagined “Evita” providing the heat.

Eva Peron, the flawed beauty who rose from poverty to become Argentina’s first lady until her death at age 33, inspired composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to create a pop opera that took home seven Tonys in 1980, including best musical.

The bio-musical and tropical beats still have power to move an audience, but in the national tour of the 2012 Broadway revival, there’s a shift in tone.

Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford have wiped away the sheen from the original version staged by Harold Prince, turned down the lights to a candle’s glow and infused the tango — or its attitude — into almost every move. The adoring and the aggrieved masses are most often seen as shadowy figures in a literal haze on stage or as a black-and-white screen presence.

Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $10-$65.75; or 412-456-6666.

The result leans a little less toward a hot-tempered revolution and a little more toward the passions of an Argentine night.

Much of the change is synthesized in the character of Che, our tour guide through Eva Peron’s life and death. He remains her conscience and judge as Eva manipulates powerful men and gets into shady territory with the nation’s funds while clinging to the ideal of being a beloved first lady. Che as originally conceived by Mr. Rice was an Everyman, but Mr. Prince deemed him a revolutionary a la Che Guevara, and he had been played that way for 30 years until the 2012 revival with Ricky Martin in the role.

The production proves to be Che’s show as much as Evita’s, and then some.

It’s not fair when you think about it. Che has all of the best lines, dripping with sarcasm to the beats of Eva’s ups and downs, and in this company, he has Josh Young’s dexterous vocals and winning presence. It’s most fun when he’s front and center, such as when he narrates a searing account of Eva’s ill-fated trip to Europe, where her hopes of acceptance were dashed by accusations of fascism back home and a snub by the English monarchy.

As Evita, Caroline Bowman moves from upwardly mobile peasant to the presidential palace at age 26 with a sometimes shrill, youthful voice. Then before our eyes, she matures into a suitable grace and sophistication, exercised in her two big second-act numbers, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and the Oscar-winning “You Must Love Me.”

For the former, the set moves forward for the famed balcony scene, bringing Ms. Bowman’s Eva closer to the people and bringing out the best in the singer. The latter song, not in the original stage version, is especially poignant, because in death “Santa Evita” seems to have regained the status she so coveted.

Eva is portrayed as a glowing presence with Grace Kelly-style blond hair, at first an asset to Juan Peron’s regime but always worrisome to the military arm of the government. As she spirals toward her death in 1952, she remains ambitious and still needy, begging for the love of her people and her husband — the smooth Sean MacLaughlin, who has played “Phantom of the Opera’s” Raoul on Broadway.

In one of the few solo roles apart from the big three, the character of Magaldi — an early Eva Duarte (pre-Peron) conquest — was on opening night portrayed by John Stellard, an able replacement who lists a Pittsburgh Bach Choir concert among his credits.

The ensemble does most of the heavy lifting with the dance numbers that often call for the precise lock-step influence of the tango and some impressive leg kicks from the female dancers. Numbers flow from one to the other, including a particularly strong stretch from the militaristic “The Art of the Possible” to Eva and Juan’s realization that “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” to “A New Argentina” that ends the first act.

Tony winner Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin originated the Broadway roles of Evita and Che, and if you are a fan and have listened to their cast recording over and over, it’s hard to dismiss powerhouse Patti belting from the first strains of some of these songs. If your experience is the Madonna movie version, well, here’s a chance to see the musical as it was intended, a passionate account of an ambitious woman and her candle-in-the-wind story.

The musical opens with footage of Evan Peron’s lavish funeral playing out on a huge screen that dwarfs the mourners below, who break out of “Requiem” and into “Oh, What a Circus,” with Che leading the way: “You were supposed to have been immortal/That’s all they wanted, not much to ask for/But in the end, you could not deliver.” The finale brings Eva Peron’s story full circle and the musical fades away quietly, something Evita never did in life.

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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