Acid Test: EDGE's New Theatre Column Examines Revivals of 'Evita,' 'The Normal Heart,' and 'Oklahoma!'
Christopher Ehlers READ TIME: 11 MIN.
Welcome to Acid Test, EDGE's new bi-weekly theatre column that I hope will be a fresh addition to the world of Boston theatre criticism. The name Acid Test comes from a book of collected essays published in 1963 by longtime New York Magazine critic John Simon, whose command of language, barbed criticism, and intense lifelong love for theater persisted until his death in 2019 at the age of 94. I never met John, but I knew his wife, Pat. When John passed, she sent me three of his favorite pens–he always wrote his reviews out by hand before typing them–and I hope this column will be one way that I can keep those legendary pens hard at work.
You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!
Waltham's Reagle Music Theatre had a rough go of it last summer. While they opened with a successful production of "West Side Story"–their first since COVID and their first with newly appointed artistic director Rachel Bertone–their subsequent production, "Pippin," shuttered after only three performances as COVID ravaged the company. But the musical theater gods have smiled upon us this summer with an ambitious and wholly thrilling revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 chestnut "Oklahoma!"
Separately, the careers of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were limping along by the early 40s and they each badly needed a hit. Hammerstein had just had six flops in a row, and expectations weren't exactly high for his next project. After opening in New Haven, the musical–then called "Away We Go!"–opened at Boston's Colonial Theatre where it continued to develop into something Rodgers and Hammerstein believed would be a big hit. So next time you plop down at the Colonial with your $25 drink, try to imagine that 80 years ago in that very room, the future of the American musical would be forever changed.
Of course, "Oklahoma!" (as its name was changed to when it arrived in New York) kicked off one of the most legendary theatrical partnerships of all time, all the while completely reinventing the art form. After all, it was the first time Broadway had seen a musical that utilized music, lyrics, book, and dance to develop characters and move the story forward. It was also an unapologetically optimistic slice of Americana, something that theatergoers were eager for as World War II raged on.
I'm all for the radical reinvention of classic musicals, but I am a true slut for tradition, and Reagle's "Oklahoma!"–directed and choreographed by Bertone–is a miraculous recreation of the very production that look Broadway by storm 80 years ago. With a cast of nearly 40 and an orchestra of more than 20 (led with gusto by Dan Rodriguez), Bertone's "Oklahoma!" is a prime example of what makes her one of Boston's best musical whisperers: her faith in the material and her understanding that modern audiences do not need to be waterboarded with contemporary resonance or modern parallels in order to be receptive.
But it isn't only Bertone's faith in the material that makes her productions great: it's her deep knowledge of what makes musicals work and what makes the characters tick. Here, she takes inspiration from Agnes de Mille's original iconic dances and put her Bertonian spin on all of it, including the astounding Dream Ballet.
The performances are great, too, especially Jared Troilo, who is a flirtatious joy as Curly and has never sounded as good as he does here. And then there's Jack Mullen, a rising senior at Boston Conservatory, who is showstoppingly good as the spunky and lovesick Will Parker, who dances with such astounding professionalism that it's impossible not to see a long career in his future.
Sadly, "Oklahoma!" is Bertone's only show this summer. But this production will burn brightly in my mind for a while, as I suspect it will for many.
Eva, beware your ambition.
While Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's "Evita" may be a household name as far as musicals go, Broadway has only seen two productions of the concept-album-turned-rockera (or is it a popera?): Harold Prince's iconic 1979 staging that made stars of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, and a 2012 Ricky Martin-led revival that was well-intentioned but otherwise dead on arrival. Cambridge's American Repertory Theater is trying to make it three, although no official plans have been revealed beyond a fall run at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
This promising remounting is directed by Sammi Cannold, who was at the helm of a 2019 gala staging at New York's City Center. The production is whip-smart, chic as hell, and is a huge passion project for Cannold, who traveled to Argentina four times over 12 years in order to sharpen her understanding of the legacy of both Eva Perón and Perónism.
When "Evita" premiered in London in 1978, critics were largely repulsed; when "Evita" made US landfall in Los Angeles the following year, the papers were overrun with gossip about the can-she-or-can't-she-pull-it-off performance of Patti LuPone, who was missing performances due to vocal strain. (She later said that she thought Webber hated women, which is why he pitched the score in such an impossible-to-sing key). By the time the show arrived in New York later that year, LuPone had grown into the role. Critics were still chilly on the show, but audiences loved it, and the show went on to win seven 1980 Tony Awards. The rest, as they say, is history.
You can count this critic as an admirer of "Evita." But critics have groaned and grumbled about it for nearly half a century, and I find continued derision of the as-written "Evita" to be boring. The score is delicious, and it is without question one of the great musical scores of the 20th century. But the show is a challenge, not only because it needs a superhuman leading lady, but because it requires a director capable of marrying concept, story, and history while keeping modern audiences interested in a complex woman who hasn't been a household name for ages.
When "Evita" reached Broadway in 1979, Eva Perón had been dead for 27 years. But the subsequent exile of Juan Perón and banning of Perónism led to Eva's body going missing for 17 years. In 1971, Eva's body was found in Italy; in 1973, Juan returned to Argentina and once again became president. This means that for audiences in 1979, the Peróns were still fresh, as messy as ever in the headlines. Even in death, Eva was one of a kind.
Part of the struggle with "Evita" in 2023 is that the Peróns are either a distant memory for some, or for the rest of us, not a memory of all. This makes the director's job even more challenging: craft an "Evita" that contextualizes the story, legacy, and controversy so that it matters to us. "Evita" is a cautionary tale about the dangers of demagoguery in politics. But do Americans need to be cautioned against such political dangers when we just lived through Donald Trump? (Unsurprisingly, Trump loved the musical).
This new production of "Evita" gets a lot right, but it needs some work if it's to be a Broadway success. First, the musical is entirely sung through, which means that years of exposition are sometimes reduced to a single phrase of a song. Che, the musical's narrator, is played here by an ineffective Omar Lopez-Cepero, whose voice cannot transcend the robust orchestra or mighty ensemble, which means a lot gets lost. The other problem with this revival is that its first act (which spans 12 years from Eva's arrival in Buenos Aires as a poor nobody at the age of 15 to her ascent as First Lady) happens at breakneck speed, feeling closer to 40 minutes than 12 years. It all happens too fast, and as a result, little of it resonates. In addition, it's next to impossible to pick up on all the lyrics, a fatal problem for a sung-through musical.
Then there's the issue of the lead performance. "Evita" needs a lightning-in-a-bottle talent. It needs a leading lady so ferocious that she's as alluring as she is terrifying. Shereen Pimentel, who played Maria in the most recent "West Side Story" revival (a legit soprano part!) has stepped into the iconic role (an alto part!), and while her voice is largely impressive, the music sits in a weird place in her voice and the constant back and forth between her chest voice and head voice is not ideal. And while she delivers mightily during the final 30 minutes of the show–the most emotionally fulfilling ending I've seen "Evita" have–she isn't as effective elsewhere. In the original New York Times review, Walter Kerr wrote that ice water plainly ran through LuPone's veins and that she moved "with a rattlesnake vitality." Sure, Eva did some good, like trying to help the poor and getting women the right to vote, but she was also a cold-blooded snake who stomped out anyone and anything that stood in her way. Pimentel just seems too nice. To borrow from Stephen Sondheim, she's not good, she's not bad, she's just nice. Thus, "Evita" needs a touch of ice-cold star quality that it doesn't yet have.
Rumors abound about "Evita's" Broadway prospects: Rachel Zegler, Maria in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" remake, is reportedly ready to step into the role on New York, though her vocals are unproven in a belty role like Eva. She also seems far too demure and kind to effectively portray the Argentinian enigma. (Ariana DeBose would be better, though she's allegedly currently deciding between productions of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" or "Sweet Charity" in which to make her return to the stage.) Raúl Esparza is also rumored to take over the role of Che, a role he originally played 25 years ago). Recent reports indicate that it could find a home at Roundabout's Studio 54. But if it's to find itself on another nonprofit stage, will its artistic merits even matter if the show isn't a commercial venture?
New Rep returns. Sort of.
One year after "Evita" swept the 1980 Tony Awards, the New York Native broke the news about a rare type of pneumonia that was spreading through the gay community. An outspoken fledgling playwright named Larry Kramer began mobilizing immediately and was quickly an influential force in the early years of the AIDS crisis. His passion, frustration, and outrage were all channeled into "The Normal Heart," a semi-autobiographical dramatization of his experience in those early years. It opened at New York's Public Theater in 1985, where it became the longest-running play in the organization's history, a record it still holds today. It's a devastating and important literary work, and as a Broadway revival in 2004 and an HBO film in 2014 showed, it still packs a punch today.
Now, it's the first show to reopen Watertown's New Repertory Theatre, which formally announced they would cease operations two years ago. New Rep was, for a time, one of the pandemic's most notable casualties (though I'm convinced that its downfall was more likely caused by anemic leadership of longtime artistic director Jim Petosa). But New Rep brought in some new blood, restructured itself, and announced a short season of three works, beginning with this landmark drama. But the new New Rep appears to be a mere shadow of its formal self, at least judging by the merits of their small and uneven production of "The Normal Heart," directed here by Shira Helena Gitlin.
Kramer's play is prescient, poignant, and powerful enough that it still cuts through the shakiness, but it is marred by the exhausting one-note performance of Dylan C. Wack who plays Ned, the outspoken protagonist. Wack's constant screaming is enough to compel even the staunchest gay ally to want to sign up to join the opposition. The audience must be on Ned's side, yet after about an hour of being screamed at, I'd have given up an organ in exchange for a little silence.
Worse, he's so miscast that the production's already shaky foundation cannot withstand it. When Brad Davis originated the role, he was 36; when Joe Mantello did it on Broadway, he was 42; and when Mark Ruffalo did it on screen, he was 47. It would appear as though Dylan C. Wack is in his 20s, which totally throws off the dynamics of the play and, in a sense, delegitimizes its intensity. Will McGarrahan, who is brilliant in a supporting role, would have been a better choice to play Ned. In fact, the rest of the cast is mostly fine, and the production's lungs only begin to fill with air when Wack is offstage.
Even though "The Normal Heart" is a depressing drama about AIDS, there ought to be moments of humor and levity throughout – there's plenty of sarcasm written in the script. But this revival is resolutely humorless, and the long play feels even longer as a result. But props to whoever decided to include the song "Il Adore," a song Boy George wrote for his underrated musical "Taboo," which plays over a pivotal scene. If a song cue is the most memorable thing about "The Normal Heart," I'd say that's a problem. Will New Rep complete this season of blackbox productions in hopes of eventually returning to the great mainstage space upstairs? I sure hope so. As it stands now, they've got a long way to go.
Some Post-Mortem Love
It is my sincerest wish with this new column to provide insight, coverage, and–of course–a little bit of snark on still-running productions in greater Boston. But seeing as how this is the first installment, I'd like to finish up by showing a little love to some recently closed productions that impressed me: I fell in love with the entire cast of "As You Like It," co-produced by Actors' Shakespeare Project and The Theater Offensive; Paul Melendy gave a performance of charm and comedic bravura in Greater Boston Stage's "Clue;" Arlekin's "The Gaaga" was a fever dream of theatrical innovation; a deliriously funny fight scene in Gloucester Stage's "Private Lives" made me very happy; and Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia brought tears to my eyes with his brilliant performance in Teatro Chelsea's "619 Hendricks."
Up next, Company One returns with "The Boy Who Kissed the Sky," Kevin Hill stages "The Sound of Music" at North Shore Music Theatre; and the 2021 Pulitzer finalist "Stew" at Gloucester Stage.