I never planned or imagined I would want to write about these two shows in the same review, but the parallels couldn’t be erased from my head. Two musical theater stars on the rise grab hold of the spotlight, both playing true to life legends, with maybe one other musical theater legend looking on daring us not to forget about her (Yes, I’m talking about you, Patti LuPone). Each of these two leading ladies are giving it all in musicals just blocks away from one another, gifting us with a performance that will shoot them up into the Broadway star stratosphere, while each, to different degrees, are in shows that never quite match their magnificence. They are both partnered with men who do fine work, alongside an ensemble that works hard for the money, delivering those vocal and dance moves with finesse and sexy ability from very different dance world perspectives. One of the leading ladies can sing, act, and dance like no other (except for maybe the musical legend she is playing), taking us higher and higher with each kick, while the other, well…, two outta three ain’t too bad either, and she only has LuPone to directly answer to.
This year, New York City Center is presenting Evita, the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece for their annual Gala Presentation. It makes complete sense, as this is an iconic musical, one loved by many, particularly the two gentlemen sitting beside me the other night. They were excited beyond belief, nonstop discussing the magnificence of the musical, a feeling I can completely understand as I’ve worshipped this show since I first heard a recording with Patti LuPone singing the lead so many years ago. Tweaked and reconfigured by Sammi Cannold (A.R.T.’s world premiere of Endlings), a director who seems to have made a study of the piece, the musical strides forward with an intelligent passion and commitment to the source material, bringing in different ideas and constructs that both enlighten, yet also trip it up. We see shades of the original iconic production, but overall the space seems distant, like a mausoleum, rather than a place to dance or celebrate.
Cannold splits the lead role in two, creating two parts that are representative of Evita’s different moments of struggle and success, a sort of psychological struggle that forever haunts the determined mind of Argentina’s most famous first lady. It’s a strongly compelling internalized slant on her fortitude; one that works within the misogynistic constructs of what it takes for a woman at that time to rise and gain any sort of power, and what tools she has at her disposal. The younger 17 year old Evita slides into view of a traveling tango singer, Magaldi, portrayed by the wonderful rich Philip Hernandez (Broadway’s Les Misérables), who richly envelopes the audience with his magnificent voice, He draws the young lady forward into, what will become, her pathway to power. Awkwardly directed with the insertion of a wife-like woman on Magaldi’s arm, the scene of Evita and family forcing herself into the life of the tango singer doesn’t seem right nor make much sense as constructed here. It’s highly illogical, but on that night of a thousand stars, the young Evita, weakly played by Maia Reficco (Nickelodeon’s “Kally’s Mashup“) makes her way to Argentina’s capital. It’s unfortunate, as Reficco doesn’t have what it takes to truly inhabit the exciting “Buenos Aires” number both physically, emotionally, or vocally. The dancers surrounding her thrill, but her inclusion in the tension disturbs and distracts. Finally, though, making the switch off from young Evita (Reficco) to the true star of the evening, Solea Pfeiffer (Hollywood Bowl’s West Side Story) as the adult Evita, there is a burst of joy and exuberance, as here with Pfeiffer is an Evitawe can all get behind.
Pfeiffer transports Evita into the star-making vehicle that we’ve all been waiting for. Her voice shines as magnificently as the iconic dress that shimmers overhead in the opening scene of mourning. Even with the clumsy set, designed by Jason Sherwood (ATC’s This Ain’t No Disco) giving her obstacles and more obstacles to climb over to get to the front of the stage, we are intrigued and enveloped. The set pieces even block her face for a brief period during the beautifully performed “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina“, making me want to cry for her and scold the designer and director. The hovering floral arrangements made for a achingly beautiful visual for that one brief moment, surrounding her on the balcony scene, but then they got in the way as they were, one by one, raised up to the heavens before she was actually done singing that iconic song. And poor Peron, stiffly portrayed by the over enunciating Enrique Acevedo (Encores’ Zorba), who has the misfortune to open Act 2 on a mostly barren stage, awkwardly speaking to the masses, but only having Che, nicely portrayed by the well voiced but somewhat too tidy Jason Gotay (Encores’ Call Me Madam) to cheer him on.
It says a lot, that Gotay’s Che floats about the stage not really making an impact one way or the other. My companion and I barely discussed him as we walked away from NYCC, as if he was some afterthought and not one of the stars, and that tells you everything you need to know. He looks nothing like the rebel, and more like a clean cut Disney star joining in to help out. His voice is lovely, but his presence never enters the Patinkin universe. The same could be said about the Mistress, shakily voiced by Maria Cristina Slye (Muny’s Jesus Christ Superstar) who starts off well, but fades away during the beautifully crafted “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” when her emotionality should have been rising. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, just gets better and better vocally as the show progresses. She is what makes this Evita work, and pretty much the only reason beyond the music, lyrics, and dance to see this recreation. Oddly though, she doesn’t seem to have the Argentinian rhythm or heat inside her body, even as she acts up a storm with her expert vocal renditions. She’s stiff in her tango moments, and spends most of her time standing, posing, and walking circles around the others in gorgeously dazzling costumes by Alejo Vietti (Encores’ Hey, Look Me Over). She gifts us with her voice, but not her body (LuPone, on the other hand, seemed to ooze musical sensuality in every hip strut she made across her Evita‘s Broadway bow).
With co-choreography credit going to both Emily Maltby (Ragtime on Ellis Island) and Valeria Solomonoff (“Tango Intimo“), the moves of the talented ensemble shine with a sensuality that feels perfectly attuned to the place and time, even though some of the soldier’s movements border on the inappropriate and ridiculous. This is Argentina, the land of the tango, and it’s evident in the movements incorporated that the tightly entwined sexuality is ever-present in all the dancers bodies, except for Pfeiffer. The ensemble bring life and heat to every big dance number, particularly when highlighted within the deeply hued lighting design of Bradley King (Broadway’s Hadestown), who pushes the envelope to the edge in his sensual colorful silhouettes. Naturally the New York City Center Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Kristen Blodgetter, with sound designer Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels) and music coordinator David Lai, brings life to every hot blooded moment, filling the cavernous space with glory and heat.
It’s musically divine, at least in regards to the music and the lead. Here at NYCC, we have an Evita for, what seems like, the singular purpose of making a star out of Solea Pfeiffer, an actor on her way up the ladder having just premiered the new movie-to-musical ‘Almost Famous‘ at the Old Globe playing Penny Lane, a part that truly solidified Goldie Hawn’s daughter, Kate Hudson as a bonafide film actress. While the others, Gotay and Acevedo simply show up and do some fine acceptable work, they pale in comparison, at least in this incarnation. Pfeiffer’s shining star rises up over the banal production, but with a stronger visual creation, and less emphasis on those floating flower arrangements, the musical chairs of this revival might be re-arranged in just the right order to not leave anyone out. With such a refocus on a larger scale, thinking about each scene visually and vocally, this musical revival might just generate a fire that possibly could burn as bright as Pfeiffer.
It’s funny, as this critical thinking is the same in regards to Broadway’s latest jukebox musical, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical. It splashes forward with the excitement of a legendary rock concert. A point proven, once again by the two super excited tourists who came all the way from Iowa to see this show. Lifetime Tina fans, she could barely contain her excitement, exclaiming to my companion that she bought the tickets 6 months ago, on the day they went on sale. She was bubbling up over the edges, almost too much for my companion to take in, as if she was going to meet the real thing. And she basically does, in a way, as this origin story musical of one of Rock and Roll’s most beloved ladies, finds its soul in its star, Adrienne Warren. Within that tiny powerful frame, she twist and shouts joy and exuberance to the heavens no matter what mother Velma, dutifully portrayed by an excellent Dawnn Lewis (City Center’s The Wiz) says to her young daughter, the loud and young Anna-Mae (Skye Dakota Turner). You just “can’t keep that girl down“, she says, and thank the Lord, as that young firecracker blossoms most fully into the magnanimous Tina Turner, giving that theatrical church called the Lunt-Fountanne, exactly what it is in need of to make this musical kick.
Embodied most deliciously and magnificently by the dynamic and powerful Warren (Broadway’s Shuffle Along…), her Tina Turner doesn’t do anything nice and easy. She gives us rough and raw, just the way she, and the real thing, does “Proud Mary“, and not just in her performance of that one song – which she does, most magically – but in every step she takes throughout. It’s as if we are jumping through time, getting to witness Tina throughout her performance years and life, all designed with intricacy and authenticity by set and costume designer Mark Thompson (Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), with rock star lighting by Bruno Poet (The Shed’s Cornucopia with Bjork), electric sound design by Nevin Steinberg (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), and dynamic projection design by Jeff Sugg (Broadway’s Sweat). Warren’s portrayal shoots up into the starry atmosphere on a strong set of energetic pair of dancing legs and a killer vocal performance, worthy of a Tony. It is epic star-making at its most splendorous, with Warren shimmying and strutting her way across that stage as only (Executive Producer) Tina Turner could. We already knew Warren was spectacular. She’s been gracing the stage for years, never really finding that part that could pop her up to top billing, but as Tina, much like what Stephanie J. Block achieved with Cher, Warren gives authentic voice to the iconic legend with a force that can’t be questioned, only applauded rigorously.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s spectacularly gorgeous and magnetic, and as directed with flash and fire by Phyllida Lloyd (Donmar/St. Ann’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, including The Tempest and Henry IV), with dynamite choreography by Anthony Van Laast (Mamma Mia! worldwide), Tina, the Broadway musical shines. It takes us through her journey, much like the very similarly structured “What’s Love Got to Do with It” from young wild child girl whose voice was bigger then her ‘can’t sit down’ body, to that moment when she realizes that she is “(Simply) The Best“, better than all the rest. And that praise includes Warren, who needs no help from other versions of herself to tell the story of her rise to fame. She’s a solo act, helped initially on the arm of the famously violent and brutal Ike Turner, played to the stereotypical heavens by the very game Daniel J. Watts (Broadway’s After Midnight). If it wasn’t for manager Rhonda, deftly portrayed by the underused Jessica Rush (Broadway’s Summer), the Tina we all know and worship might not have made it out alive.
With a book written by co-producer Katori Hall (The Mountaintop), Tina – The Tina Turner Musical stays on track, melting songs from her career in with the pivotal moments of her challenging life. Sometimes the iconic songs feel clumsy or cut short, making us curse the structure by not giving us the full throttled power of her music (trust me when I say you’ll be deeply satisfied with the three pronged encore that pulls out all the stops and short cuts). The songs are performed with pitch perfect energy, thanks in kind to the supremely electric work of the fabulous Ikettes played by Holli Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, Mars Rucker, as well as the fine music supervision, arrangements and Incidental music by Nicholas Skilbeck (West End’s Follies) and orchestrations by Ethan Popp (Broadway’s School of Rock). It takes a bit of patience, though, this rise to singular fame story, feels somewhat distant and manufactured, but that moment when she climbs those stairs into stardom heaven, we are thankful for riding along with this incredible woman, and the star that is playing her.
Everyone else delivers the goods with passion and joy, although sometimes with a bit too much glee. Sister Alline, portrayed big and wild by Mars Rucker scores points (although at the performance we attended, I believe, although not certain, Rucker took a tumble by the closet, bringing the show to an early unplanned intermission and thrusting an understudy/swing into the part – although I’m waiting for confirmation). We are also given a warm spiritual embrace each time Gran Georgeanna, warmly played with authentic care by the fantastic Myra Lucretia Taylor (LCT’s The Rolling Stone) enters, pulling the determined yet scared Tina back to her headstrong Anna-Mae roots. They usher out the grandmother a bit too many times, with little fanfare, but that is the nature of this commercial piece of musical theatre. It needs the roots of her past to give the whole thing meaning. One thing I didn’t know from the excellent 1993 Angela Bassett movie, was the romantic entanglement Tina had with the caring musician Raymond, played handsomely by the beautifully voiced Gerald Caesar (OBC’s Choir Boy), who shares “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” with Warren. They were both right, in the end, but not in the way they thought at that particular moment.
The show as a whole gets the job done, fairly gracefully with focus and deliberation. It’s better than some of these origin stories, but it also never creatively achieves anything beyond the obvious. Warren is the draw. To see her do what she does as Tina is worth everything. The rest is all good work, but it doesn’t elevate it to any great heights. They get all the scenes in, particularly the ones we remember from the film. I was curious how they were going to theatrically orchestrate the running across Sunset Boulevard,. It was such a powerful cinematic moment, one that contained all the will and power we feel exists inside Tina, and the team does find its own way of giving it the heightened emotional space that is required. That scene in the film, when a bloodied and bruised Tina asks the front desk clerk to give her a room, even though she has no money to speak of still activates the tear ducts, but Tina – The Tina Turner Musical finds its own way. And surprisingly takes it up one more notch, removing the focus from the young man who helps her, but rightly, places it firmly in the hands of the magnificent Tina, as only Warren could do. This is her moment of truth when she takes hold of her spiritual and professional self, and that, in its symbolic essence, while holding a set of hotel room keys in her hand, says it all. It’s by no means perfect, this musical salute to the Rock and Roll legend, but the heart and soul is firmly in place, and it resides in the rising star of Warren, just as it sits with Pfeiffer on Evita’s balcony asking us not to cry for her or her country. We should only cheer for these two, with all the energy we can muster.