NEW YORK — Much of the buzz coming from the new revival "Evita" has been about the spitfire Argentine playing the title role. But all of the heat actually comes from the guy shaking his bon-bon.
Ricky Martin is easily the best thing about this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's bio of Eva Peron, which opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre. He sings beautifully, dances gracefully, athletically climbs ladders, plays his role with a knowing sneer and elicits drools in his suspenders and tight white shirt. He even makes a mustache work.
In fact, maybe it's time for Broadway to have a new rule: Put Ricky Martin in everything. He would fit in happily at "Newsies." He would definitely enliven "Death of a Salesman." Heck, put him in "Mary Poppins" and watch the roof really lift off.
Crisply directed by Michael Grandage ("Frost/Nixon"), with high-kicking choreography by Rob Ashford ("How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"), this showy iteration of "Evita" had a yearlong run in London in 2006-07 and returns to Broadway for the first time since it opened there 33 years ago.
Of the three leads in London — Grammy Award-winner Martin as Che, the spokesman of the working class; Elena Roger as the ambitious Eva Peron; and Michael Cerveris as Juan Peron — only Roger has made the trip to Broadway. It was a risk: The petite Roger, who received lavish praise in the West End, may actually be from Argentina but is virtually unknown in the U.S.
Yet while Roger admirably throws herself into every tango and commands the spotlight, her voice doesn't always seem up for the demand of Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber's songs and gets a bit screechy at the higher registers.
Her Evita, overall, is more insistent and feral, less charismatic and glamorous. She barely pulls off such great lines as "They need to adore me/so Christian Dior me" and "Stand back — you wanna know what'cha gonna get in me/Just a little touch of star quality!" Madonna, who played the crypto-fascist first lady on film, didn't have the authenticity, but at least made those work.
Roger's "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" is good without being brilliant, and her "You Must Love Me" is lovely, though a tad angry. Tony Award-winner Cerveris is typically solid, able to add a neediness and tenderness to a Juan Peron who is thinly written. But Martin, whose repertoire of pop songs includes "Shake Your Bon-Bon" and "Livin' La Vida Loca," outshines them both with a youthful vigor that escaped Antonio Banderas in the film. Martin seems to catch the eye whatever he does: prowling the stage, mocking the Perons or just leaning against a wall.
Those walls, by the way, are gorgeous. Christopher Oram's balconies, palace facade and a piazza — all warmly lit by Neil Austin — are stunningly lifelike and rich. They even move forward or back to highlight moments. The use of two levels highlights the divide between the unwashed and the awash in jewels.
Ashford pulls out all the stops in the dancing. His soldiers are menacing, and his peasants have mastered a chin-raised, high-leg style punctuated by plenty of handkerchief waving. The group tangos aren't so regimented that individual couples don't shine and, at some points, the performers on stage add to the percussive rhythm by banging tables or stomping their feet. The music is big, brash, and the orchestrations — by Lloyd Webber and David Cullen — emphasizes Latin flavors.
And yet there's something distancing about this "Evita." Partly that's due to a fragmentary score that is steeped in opera in the first act and then gets Broadway brashy by the second. More than "Jesus Christ Superstar," the other sung-through Rice-Lloyd Webber revival that recently opened a few blocks away, listening to "Evita" reminds us that before it was a stage musical it was a concept album.
Another thing that all the great voices, sets and dancing can't overcome is the apparently contradictory feelings Lloyd Webber and Rice have for Eva Peron. Was she a cynical, bed-hopping manipulator who rose to power out of thirst for power or did she really have her peoples' interest at heart?
Both visions compete furiously in "Evita" and even clash in the same song, "Santa Evita," which can be seen either as a cynical public stunt between Peron and a child or a heartfelt moment of populist politics.
As in "Jesus Christ Superstar," Lloyd Webber and Rice are exploring the caustic intersection of politics and showbiz. There's one thing "Evita" has that its sibling does not, and that's a guy named Ricky. Hugh Jackman has some competition as king of Broadway.