There is no denying that the new national tour of "Evita" at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago is energetically performed, tastefully designed and musically accomplished.
But the production lacks a necessary bite and blackness to properly illustrate this controversial pop-opera that concerns itself with the cult of personality surrounding Eva Peron, an ambitious actress who was calculating in her rise to become wife to Argentine President Juan Peron before dying in 1952 from cancer at the age of 33.
"Evita"★ ★ ½
Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Sept. 22), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday, through Oct. 6
Running time: About two hours, 15 minutes with intermission
Parking: Nearby pay garages
Rating: Some sexualized groping and misogynistic cat calls, but largely for general audiences
The tour is derived from British director Michael Grandage's 2006 London and 2012 Broadway revivals, and there's a stately period look about Christopher Oram's Argentine set and costume designs as scenes shift from Eva's hometown of Junin to the neoclassical architecture of Buenos Aires. It's a different, yet ultimately less effective, approach from director Harold Prince's more Brechtian and darkly abstracted take for the original 1978 London production that set the gold standard for subsequent "Evita" productions.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice only offer a Cliff's Notes run-through of Eva's story in "Evita." So set against more literal backgrounds in Grandage's production, the characters seem to cry out for more dimensionality than what is available to them in the mostly sung-through script and score.
In addition, Caroline Bowman's take on Eva (nicknamed Evita by her adoring masses) lacked the determined steeliness audiences have come to expect, even though she acquitted herself nicely in the vocal aspects of this difficult role. (Desi Oakley alternates in the role at select performances.)
Also vocally commanding was the booming operatic voice of Josh Young as the malcontent narrator Che, depicted as an everyman instead of the historical revolutionary Che Guevara.
There's strong vocal work as well from Sean MacLaughin as Juan Peron, Krystina Alabado as the tossed-aside mistress and Christopher Johnstone as the singer Magaldi who becomes the first of many lovers that Eva uses to climb to prominence.
The hardworking ensemble rotates through a number of costumes representing the military, the aristocracy and the poor "descamisados" while executing Rob Ashford's tango-heavy choreography. The revised orchestrations by David Cullen and Lloyd Webber are much more appropriately Latin in sound than the original disco-infused ones from the late 1970s.
Yet, despite lighting designer Neil Austin's fine and moody work, this "Evita" lacks a darkness in its exploration of Eva Peron's grip on her country. So, in the end, it feels like there's something missing.