Evita" has gained a little more Hispanic spring in her step and tone in her voice. Audiences at the touring production that opens a two-week engagement at the Mechanic Theatre Wednesday will see and hear changes that are subtle but significant.
Instead of the usual Euro-pop sound, the new revival has more of a Spanish guitar flavor. It's just one indication of the increased Latin influence in this 20th anniversary production, which, if all goes well, will move to Broadway next season.
In addition to the orchestration, other changes include more authentic tango choreography and the casting of Hispanic-American actors in the lead roles for the first time in a major North American production.
Although it wasn't a priority two decades ago, Latinizing "Evita" seems almost a given in these multicultural times, explains Larry Fuller, the revival's director and choreographer (and the show's original choreographer). "It seemed totally right to at least attempt to cast the three leading roles with Latino-Americans."
So Eva Peron is played by Natalie Toro (an actress of Puerto Rican extraction); her husband, Argentine dictator Juan Peron, is played by Raymond Jaramillo McLeod (who is partly of Spanish extraction); and the narrator, Che, is played by Raul Esparza (who is of Cuban extraction).
Casting ethnically appropriate actors "updates it a little bit in terms of allowing the actors to bring some of their own personal history and certainly our connection to our own culture to the stage," says Esparza, whose connection with his own role is quite specific.
In creating a musical based on the life of the former Argentine first lady, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice added one semi-factual character, a narrator 1/8 Everyman identified only as "Che." Although Che is only loosely based on the revolutionary leader Che Guevara -- who, in real life, never met Eva Peron -- the connection was close enough to upset Esparza's family.
"Che is generally sort of reviled in my family," says Esparza, whose grandfather, a chemical engineer, worked with Guevara in Cuba's ministry of the interior. "[Guevara] destroyed what my family had."
In researching Che, Esparza consulted his grandfather, who emigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s. "He told me [Che] had a great sense of humor and also was an incredible idealist who never had his feet on the ground," the actor explains.
And though he says, "I'm not playing necessarily the Che of history," Esparza has tried to incorporate certain realistic touches, such as the fact that Che was asthmatic. "Particularly in the second act, as he becomes more and more furious, I like playing around with the idea that his body is failing and that he starts to gain strength as [Eva Peron] starts to wither, but he can't breathe."
The actor says the increased Latin presence in the revival also affects the interpretation of the title role. "The concept of a woman's femininity and sensuality is very different in a Latin culture," he says. "There's something uniquely ethnic about that mixture of a very dominant, powerful woman who is incredibly feminine."
The struggle for dominance is at the heart of the tango, director 1/8 choreographer Fuller acknowledges. One of his more significant choreographic changes was reworking the tango danced by a couple in the background of the scene in which Eva sings, "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You," when she meets Juan Peron.
"The concept for that tango couple, based on what we knew 20 years ago as the tango social dance in America and England, hearkened back to the Valentino kind of rose-in-teeth, only without making it a comedy," Fuller says. But due to the popularity of shows such as "Tango Argentino," he feels, "Most everybody has now seen what is truly the Argentine tango, so I redid that choreography."
Fuller's involvement with "Evita" began when he was assistant choreographer of the movie version of "A Little Night Music." The film was directed by Harold Prince, who went on to direct the original production of "Evita." During the filming, Prince asked Fuller to listen to a new cassette by, as Prince put it, "The boys that wrote 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' "
"I listened to it and said, 'I think this is terrific,' " Fuller recalls. "It gave whoever was going to do it a chance to do something original -- as I like to say, to create dangerously."
Before long, he and Prince got that chance. Fuller says the ideas for staging several of "Evita's" most memorable numbers came about on trans-Atlantic flights to London with Prince.
For example, "Goodnight and Thank You" -- in which Eva uses a revolving door to dismiss the men in her life before Peron -- was inspired by a page in a book Fuller read on a plane. "It named several of the men that she supposedly had liaisons with during her climb up the ladder," he explains. "I said, here's a list of the men that should be coming through that door."
Counting that first London production, Fuller has now directed and 1/8 or choreographed 11 productions of "Evita." Besides its Latin flavor, another element that distinguishes the current tour from most of its predecessors is that it uses Timothy O'Brien's original set and costume designs -- albeit augmented by new, state-of-the-art lighting by Richard Winkler. Fuller says "Evita" is the rare example of a stage show that was actually helped by the subsequent movie version. "A whole new generation or two of young people are now aware of the show because of the movie with Madonna," he says.
Indeed, the movie was the only version Esparza had seen before his audition. "I'm young enough to be a big Madonna fan. That is exactly why I went to see it," says the 28-year-old actor.
And both men believe that, above and beyond the increased ethnicity, the time is ripe for a return of "Evita," which is very much a cautionary tale. "It's relevant in that the marketing of political figures can make them appear in a light that, shall we say, may be more heavenly than truthful," Fuller explains.
"Certainly the political atmosphere in the country right now is so close to the things we see on stage -- the idea of someone being catapulted to power by an image in media, then being brought down by that image," Esparza adds. "You never know who's the real person."
Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: Jan. 13-24. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Jan. 17, Jan. 20; 3 p.m. Jan. 24
Pub Date: 01/10/99