tampabay.com

'Evita' harkens to earlier time

When the musical opens at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the audience will see a version that is very similar to the original.

By Times Staff Writer
Published November 8, 2005


PREVIEW: Evita opens tonight and runs through Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $31.50-$67.50. 813 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; www.tbpac.org

Of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Evita is one of the best. In the words of Lloyd Webber biographer Michael Walsh, the score has a "hard, flinty beauty about it that is unique in his output."

It also has one of the most punishing roles in musical theater for the title character. The wide vocal range of Buenos Aires, Rainbow High, Don't Cry for Me, Argentina and other signature numbers tests the voice of the actor playing Evita. She's onstage for much of the show and has at least a dozen costume changes.

"It's a tough role because of the intensity and energy required," said Hal Prince, who directed the original Evita, first in London, then on Broadway, where it opened in 1979 and ran almost four years.

Prince supervised the touring production playing this week in Tampa, and he has a new Evita in the cast, Sarah Litzsinger. "Sarah is a little slip of a girl with a lot of power. An amazing voice, an amazing presence," he said.

Litzsinger follows in the footsteps of several stars who have had their careers rise and fall on the challenge of singing Eva Duarte, the femme fatale who schemed her way to the top, finally marrying Argentinian dictator Juan Peron and becoming the most powerful woman in the country's history.

Elaine Paige created the role of Eva in London. Patti Lupone played her on Broadway. Madonna starred in the 1996 movie.

Litzsinger had never seen Evita before she got the part. She paid close attention to the performances of Paige and Lupone on their recordings of the musical.

"I tried to steal the best of both," she said, with a laugh. "I love some of the things Patti does. Some of her brashness is very necessary for the role, but Elaine's approach is a little more delicate, very different than Patti. She has more finesse in her voice, Elaine does, a little more pop attitude."

For a musical theater performer like Litzsinger, Madonna's Eva was a nonstarter, at least vocally. Lloyd Webber transposed the highflying part down for her in the movie.

"Madonna was very well cast in terms of her look, and I thought she did a great acting job, but I didn't like that they took the score down for her voice," she said.

Many of Eva's numbers soar into the upper register. "What's interesting is that when she comes into power, her voice becomes very streamlined, and she sits right on those E's and F's and G's up there," Litzsinger said. "She is rallying the people, and to have it up in that high, strident place helps with the acting, because you're on the edge of your voice."

Litzsinger, 34, has an impressive resume, making her Broadway debut at 11 in Marilyn: An American Fable, a musical about Marilyn Monroe that flopped. At 12, she played Bet to Lupone's Nancy in a revival of Oliver! She was Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway longer than anyone else, about three years. She has been in some interesting shows, such as Amour, Tick, Tick . . . Boom! and The Last Five Years.

But little prepared her for the emotionally charged experience of going onstage in Evita for the first time about two weeks ago in Baltimore.

"It was sort of surreal," she said. "I didn't really get nervous until Don't Cry for Me, Argentina. I was standing up there in the white dress, with the slicked-back blond wig, and I thought, "This is one of the biggest musical theater moments that any belter-actress dreams of.' It was overwhelming."

Like Eva herself, Litzsinger is small, at 5 feet 2.

"I hope that works to my advantage, having the big voice in the little body," she said. "Sometimes you can get away with a little bit more when you're small, because people expect you to be demure, and then you're not. I think the real Evita probably could get away with a lot more because she was a tiny little thing."

Prince was eager to preside over the tour of Evita, which has never had a major revival. The production was staged by choreographer Larry Fuller and seeks to duplicate the original.

"I wanted a new generation to see it exactly as it was, almost in an archival sense," Prince said. "Every detail is what it was."

Prince is currently preparing Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, which he also directed, for a Las Vegas production. He thinks Evita has a political message for audience members who are open to it.

"The Perons were iconic figures," he said. "They were like a king and queen, but in the privacy of their own rooms, they were very human, they were very flawed, they were very ambitious, they were very contradictory, and they had huge weaknesses.

"I think the play explores what you see and what's really there. It's saying to the audience that you don't have an accurate handle necessarily on who's running your country and what they're doing. It couldn't come at a better time."

-- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com