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Review: Intriguingly re-imagined 'Evita' commands Pantages Theatre

It’s a newer Argentina than not on display in “Evita” at the Pantages. This glossy touring edition of director Michael Grandage’s 2006 revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Tony-winning phenomenon doesn’t reinvent the popera, just gives it a shrewdly evocative makeover.

A critical darling in London, the production (reaching Costa Mesa in December) received wildly mixed reactions on Broadway in 2012. Yet even the naysayers noted Grandage’s and choreographer Rob Ashford’s deft refocusing of “Evita’s” basic ingredients.

Starting with the royal-blue show curtain, against which the official profiles of Eva and Juan Perón pop out. At the prologue of national reactions to Eva’s demise, designer Christopher Oram’s set bisects, a projection screen overhead lending cinematic weight to the candlelight-vigil participants below.

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Brechtian narrator Che (the superb Josh Young), here changed from Guevera-skewed revolutionary to milonguero-styled Everyman, casually launches “Oh, What a Circus.” Dulcet-voiced female mourners introduce the first, though hardly last, iteration of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” leaving our anti-heroine (the accomplished Caroline Bowman) behind to propel “Evita’s” parabolic narrative -- not for nothing did Walter Kerr compare it to a medieval morality play -- forward toward its grave conclusion.

True, the show’s liabilities -- protractedly archetypal characters, recounted rather than dramatized events, undistinguished lyrics, incessant reprises of main tunes -- have not vanished. Yet what Grandage and Ashford achieve, along with an imposing design scheme and a formidable triple-threat ensemble, largely minimizes those flaws.

Oram’s detailed sets and costumes and Neil Austin’s spectacular lighting wouldn’t be amiss at Glyndebourne. The restrained grandeur affords Grandage’s pointed spatial maneuvers and Ashford’s tango-centric dance patterns (replicated by Chris Bailey) considerable impact.

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As Eva, Bowman’s more lyrical singing and understated acting may lack the consistent high voltage of an Elaine Paige or Patti LuPone, yet she suits the reconfigured concept. Throughout, Bowman dances up a storm, looks great in the couture and traces an affecting, albeit oblique character arc (Desi Oakley essays the role at Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances).

The reassessment gives the male principals more equal weight with the title role. Young’s soaring baritone, physical charisma and ambivalent reactions fill Che’s shoes more rewardingly than anyone since Mandy Patinkin, show-stopping in “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” dead-on with Bowman in “Waltz for Eva and Che.”

Sean MacLaughlin makes a vocally refulgent, virile and empathetic Perón, in sync with Bowman from “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” to her climactic "You Must Love Me" (interpolated from the film version).

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Krystina Alabado as Perón’s mistress has a pure-toned simplicity, stilling the house at “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” Christopher Johnstone’s crooner Magaldi is drolly faux-cheesy, and the surrounding corps exhibits lush choral blend, ace footwork and committed versatility, from descamisados and servants to aristocrats and officers.

Music director William Waldrop gets maximum value, whether liturgical sweep or Piazzolla-slanted rhythms, both onstage and in the pit, aided by sound designer Mick Potter's clear-cut miking and mixing.

It's an unusually strong tour show. Aficionados and detractors of the property alike may have their issues, but this reviewer found the net effect generally engrossing, sometimes incandescent, an impressively graceful rethink.

“Evita,” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 10. (800) 982-2787 and www.HollywoodPantages.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Also Segerstrom Center for the Arts Dec. 10-22.

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