Ever since Eva Perón became First Lady of Argentina, world leaders have had her larger-than-life figure peering over their shoulders. Who could compete with her starlet’s glamour, with her determination to rise above the humble circumstances of her birth and, most of all, with her legendary magnanimity?
Perón’s life doesn’t automatically become a great musical, however. Tango Buenos Aires, which visited the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown on Thursday — and will return to New Jersey for shows in Englewood, tonight, and New Brunswick, Feb. 28 — hopes to follow in the steps of Andrew Lloyd Webber and capitalize on her celebrity with “The Song of Eva Perón,” but is far from clear about how to proceed. Ultimately the piece is closer to vaudeville than hagiography.
Under the direction of María del Rosario Bauza and with choreography by Héctor Falcón — and with a tango orchestra playing traditional melodies like “La Cumparsita,” interspersed with new music by composer and pianist Fernando Marzán — “The Song of Eva Perón” mixes snatches of Perón’s biography with scenes of seductive dancing. With its tricky partnering, the tango makes a fine metaphor for political maneuvering, and its breathy entanglements suggest the way an ambitious young woman might ascend to power. Yet by the end of the first act, the collaborators have lost track of their subject. Part One concludes with a flashy display of South American cattle-wrangling as gauchos make “boleadoras” whiz in circles around their heads. Other mysterious digressions include a percussive number for men slapping chairs; and a solo introducing Argentina’s future president, Juan Perón, as a tap dancer.
The sketches dramatizing Eva’s departure from home, her blossoming career in radio and her romantic encounter with Argentina’s future president are, well, sketchy. Although the show opens with the country’s destitute masses crawling and reaching for “Santa Eva” — cabaret singer Lucia Alonso clad in angelic white satin — it never reveals what Eva Perón did to earn the people’s overwhelming gratitude. After the creators of “The Song of Eva Perón” have her fall into her husband’s arms at a party, they leave her there.
Still, it’s possible to enjoy the enthusiasm of this company’s multi-generational cast, in numbers ranging from the brisk and swishy steps of a folk dance called the “zamba” to acrobatic ballroom dancing. In a particularly gutsy duet, the woman leverages high kicks by hooking onto her partner’s leg; he drops her twirling out of an overhead lift; and he drags her splayed and skating across the stage. “The Song of Eva Perón” has its quiet moments, too. Taking hands, a couple falls into the rhythm of the tango effortlessly; and in a simple passage where they walk from one point to another, we can judge their skill by how thoroughly they have internalized the music.
Even the orchestra is sexy, with violinist Mayumi Urgino stepping out to perform a fireworks solo. What “The Song of Eva Perón” lacks is coherence.
“The Song of Eva Perón” will be presented at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, 30 N. Van Brunt St., Englewood, tonight at 8, and the State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, Feb. 28 at 2 and 8 p.m. Visit BergenPAC.org or StateTheatreNJ.org.