Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice mapped political theater and star worship onto religious passion in 1970, begetting Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1976, they roughly reversed the process, examining the glamorous quasi-divinity that Maria Eva Duarte Perón, first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952, achieved in her day. Evita doesn’t rock as hard as JC, literally or figuratively, but Lloyd Webber was still at the height of his powers, and Rice paints a far clearer picture here of the hinted-at-there social inequality all “liberation theologies” (and populist heroes) address—and exploit.
Evita’s social-climbing story is of course its own fun, inviting all sorts of comparisons—she’s a Madame Bovary who made it! a mighty Marion Davies!—a game that’s only improved since Madonna all-too-appropriately latched her legend to the tale.
Portman convinces in each phase of Evita’s whirlwind rise from pauper to queen, and does a bravura job with a vocally challenging part, knocking the signature “Don’t Cry for Me” out of the park (or tiny café, though you nearly forget that, thanks to Anzevino and choreographer Brenda Didier’s miraculous staging). Damiano’s still-stronger turn as Judas-like foil Che Guevara just ups the stakes (it is a better part in some ways), and Trager, glittering with velvet menace, quietly steals the show as Hitler-wanna-be Juan Perón (it is his show to steal, if done just right). Behind these powerhouses, a crack song-and-dance ensemble seals the deal, effortlessly morphing from jilted lovers to contending generals to angry mob.