09/23/2013 09:04 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

High-Energy Evita Needs a Touch of Star Quality

Evita is a touchstone in the modern musical theater canon. When the sung-through rock opera debuted in the late '70s, it broke many rules. A musical about a polarizing political icon featuring a score (by a young and ambitious Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborator Tim Rice) that required the lead actress to rock belt for 2.5 hours? Audiences and never seen or heard anything like it. Critics were divided, but it found an audience and ran for years, and was made into a (tepid) feature film starring none other than Madonna.

And 30-plus years later, the show holds up remarkably well. Especially in a promising all-new production launching its national tour at the Oriental Theatre.

Sure, the story, which follows the iconic Argentinian political icon's rapid ascent to power before meeting her early demise due to cancer stage 33, is a rather one-note affair. Five minutes into the second act, it's a slow and anticlimactic descent into an untimely conclusion. But the score and, if done right, the power of the performances and the staging make up for any shortcomings in storytelling.

This first national tour mostly recreates the recent revival, which received strong critical notices in London, where it premiered, but proved a financial failure when it transferred to Broadway, despite the casting of Ricky Martin (who isn't in this tour). This production consciously breaks free from the original Hal Prince staging that so many subsequent productions followed -- including a knockout production I saw in Germany back in 2001 (Evita sung in German is intense). Where Prince's production was essentially staged in a minimalist black box with harsh lighting and steel frames, this revival, directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford, chooses sunnier tones, as if to suggest Buenos Aires' vibrant Latin flavor and heat, which drew little Eva Duarte to the big city in the first place.

Speaking of sunny, Caroline Bowman makes for a radiant Evita. Perhaps a little too much so. Yes, she sings the role with fearlessness and has spades of energy, but one has a difficult time understanding how the giggly, awkward girl we're introduced to at the top of act one becomes a calculating social climber. True, there are big gaps in the musical's book, but it's up to director and actress to connect the dots. In short, Bowman needs more bite. That said, she has some truly lovely, nuanced moments -- particularly in scenes where she isn't the primary focus.

Josh Young makes for a compelling, if somewhat underplayed, Che. A compact performer in stature, Young has a huge voice with impressive range. However he often blends into the ensemble when he should be the one outspoken voice who stands out with rage and grit.

While this tour needs some time to find its footing and grit, there are many assets, including a sizable orchestra and thrilling new orchestrations, that make this a worthy viewing. Ashford's athletic and always-in-motion ensemble choreography (his trademark) works well here, helping propel the action forward.

"Evita" plays through October 6 at the Oriental Theatre. More info here >