04/07/2012 04:59 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2012

Evita Hits Broadway: Can a Revival Possibly Compete With the Original?

There are ghosts swirling about the Marquis Theater. That's where a new revival of the soaring Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music) and Tim Rice (Lyrics) musical is in previews 33 years after it first tore into Broadway like a runaway tornado. It was unlike anything that had been seen in Musical Theater up to that point -- a modern day opera and the true life compelling story of a dictator's wife who changed the course of Argentine history. The ghosts I am talking about are the Ghosts of Performances Past -- namely Patti Lupone (Evita), Mandy Patinkin (Narrator/Che) and Juan Peron (Bob Gunton). Together the three of them transformed this tale of poor girl-turned-actress-turned-power hungry first lady into a resounding critical triumph. Another ghost -- the stellar direction of Harold Prince -- turned this show into a critically acclaimed smash. Sad to say this new production starring Argentine Elena Roger in the title role, Ricky Martin as the narrator and Michael Cerveris as Peron doesn't hold a candle to the original production. It tries hard and has its own moments of quiet beauty. But this Evita never captures the heart-racing exhilaration or historical urgency of the original.

I saw Evita in 1979 and remember being so stunned by the production that I sat motionless for several minutes when it ended -- not quite believing what I had witnessed. Patti Lupone was a force of nature. Not only did she chew the scenery -- she ate every seat in the theater too. In her powerful and brave performance one could feel the soul of a woman who moved her "descamisados" to rally in feverish adoration to the cause of Peronism. The new Evita is a pint -ized Elena Roger who competently acts and sings the title role. It's a performance to admire -- but not to adore. Ms. Roger won the Olivier Award for her performance in the London production. She has a lovely soprano voice but she is not a Lupone-styled belter and her range is far more limited. Where she should soar, she flitters. Where she should devour she takes small lady-like bites. In some of the key recitatives her voice goes shrill and sometimes cracks. Her pronounced accent sometimes makes some of the lyrics unintelligible. She makes up for vocal bravura with nuanced acting and by the time she got to the death bed scene -- she had the audience rooting for her. But the Ghost of Patti Lupone loomed large. A few years after seeing the original production, I was fortunate enough to cover the Falklands War for CBS News as Latin American correspondent. I saw first-hand how the cult of Evita affected generations of Argentines. Some spoke of her in hushed reverential whispers. Other despised her. They felt she used her power as first lady to further a corrupt administration. Many of her detractors believed that Evita was a ruthless manipulator and power hungry. She was charming but she could be cruel. Eva Peron had the demonic drive of many powerful women in history. Roger played the Saintly Evita. But Patti Lupone captured the complex Evita. Her performance was riveting and simply astonishing. Elena Roger -- not so much.

Ricky Martin brings a star turn to the role of the Narrator. He easily captures the cynicism Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber saw in this "witness" to history. He sings well but a recent sore throat had taken its toll. He was raspy in some key songs -- but his showmanship carried him through. Mandy Patinkin had the voice of an Irish Tenor and at times allowed a beautiful falsetto to elevate the music to a sublime level. He played the Narrator as a Che-like observer, suspicious and crafty and reptilian all at the same time. He was a perfect foil to the steamroller that was Lupone. The tall-ish imposing Bob Gunton in the original Broadway production looked astonishingly like the real Peron. And he captured perfectly the arrogant quality of a ruthless military man hell-bent on getting to the top. Gunton looked like a well fed, robust dictator like Chile's Augusto Pinochet or Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza (who I interviewed before he fled into exile as the Sandinistas came to power). By contrast the short and slight Michael Cerveris (so brilliant in Sweeney Todd,Assasins, The Who's Tommy) seems entirely miscast as an oafish demagogue. In fact in his tight fitting double breasted suits he looked like he should be lounging on the set of Mad Men rather than wrestling rival military types for power. Didn't anyone consider padding? Cerveris has a serviceable voice but his phony sounding accent and heavy-handed delivery of Peron's lines seemed like a parody rather than suggesting the swaggering macho menace of a true Latin American dictator.

As for the production itself -- nothing could possibly compare to the knockout punch staging of the great Hal Prince. Think Wagner's Rings Cycle. Thrilling! Majestic! In the original Broadway Evita -- the Act One closer "A New Argentina" was a rousing and incredibly exciting anthem and call to arms. Protestors frantically waved brightly colored signs, billowy banners unfolded hypnotically and the cast hoisted torches as they marched defiantly toward the stage. Wow! The audience felt like rushing on stage with the cast. We were ready to be Peronistas. In this production flags unfurl unimpressively over the Casa Rosada balconies and the Act ends with a whimper rather than a bang. Why? Not the time to be subtle. Although Director Michael Grandage introduces authentic Tango in many scenes, it's not enough to make up for a somewhat subdued approach when what is called for is more of a grand flourish.

But no one can take away from Elena Roger's special moment as she sings the haunting "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" at the beginning of Act Two. Her acting is astonishing here -- wringing the pathos for all it's worth and making us finally understand the contradictions that drove Evita and propelled her to such prominence. If you've never seen Evita (and I don't mean the movie with Madonna) you will most certainly enjoy this revival. But I would be surprised if anyone who saw the original show with Lupone and Patinkin would prefer this tepid take on one of the most famous and controversial women of our time. No, not Madonna. EVITA!!