After seeing Solea Pfeiffer in the Encores! Off-Center production of Songs for a New World in 2018, she was all I could talk about. It wasn’t only her incredible voice – though it was an unbelievable piece of singing, even as she was playing Woman 1, who has the lighter, airier songs. It was her presence, her commanding, attention-grabbing presence that served as a spotlight on her at all times. I was unfamiliar with her work before that, but in that moment, I started to pay attention and wait for the next opportunity to see her perform.
That time has come. After a stint in San Diego originating the lead in Almost Famous, Pfeiffer has come back to City Center in not just a leading role, but in one of the ultimate stage diva roles, Eva Perón in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. It’s an entirely different kind of singing and an entirely different kind of acting from Songs for a New World. Eva’s vocal line sits almost entirely in that forceful Brit-pop range at the top of a woman’s belt. Pfeiffer employs what is obviously a great amount of skill and training to really tear into the singing, acquitting herself of any strain or pinched sound in the stratospheric sections of “A New Argentina” and “Rainbow High”. It’s an open, full-throated performance that is undeniably thrilling to hear. She makes a case for the absurdity of these notes: in Pfeiffer’s voice, as in Patti LuPone’s before her, it is the only way this woman can get people to listen to her.
Evita’s libretto is not concerned with nuance, preferring the kind of rock-opera grandiosity that drowns character development in orchestral amplification. As written, Eva’s only defining trait is that she’s a stone cold bitch who gets what she wants by icing everyone into submission (both writers are straight white men, what do you expect?). Webber and Rice don’t take her seriously, but have written several scenes showing other people (mostly men) also dismissing her as if it’s not exactly what they have just done. They then try to wring sympathy for her at the end by showing her illness, but not defining it as cervical cancer. She just gets weak and submissive and her husband says, “Your little body’s slowly breaking down.” (Gross.) She’s getting what she was warned about in the beginning of the musical when Magaldi, says, “Eva, beware your ambition.” It’s an age-old trope: an ambitious woman is doomed to fail.
What’s exciting about what Pfeiffer and director Sammi Cannold do with this misogynistic raw material, then, is that they put Eva in the driver’s seat, in life and afterlife. She appears at her funeral, walking through the flowers, getting vocally blasted by a Latin requiem. She can physically see what she has achieved, the lives she has changed. Moving backward, in life, Pfeiffer’s Eva is tall and straight-backed, her face is stoic and unaffected by the constant abuse hurled at her. She’s an Eva for today, a woman who knows that these men are wrong and are acting out of weakness. She knows that to succumb to them is to give them the power.
In “Goodnight and Thank You”, a roundelay of Eva’s ascent from young girl to radio star via a sequence of lovers, Cannold reframes the song from bedroom encounters to a repeating power lunch. It’s clear that Eva is still using her sexuality to get these men to pay attention to her, but having them sit at a table instead of leaving her bed in states of undress emphasizes the business aspect of these transactions. Eva is doing what she has to to get where she wants to be. For a song that is implicitly slut-shaming, Cannold slightly adjusts it to show that it’s not (only) about sex.
Cannold also takes a big swing in separating the role of Eva into younger and older selves. Maia Reficco plays teenage Eva Duarte, the girl who attaches herself to a traveling tango singer in order to get out of her small town. Having a young actress play this section of Eva’s life highlights how Magaldi tried to have sex with a child and leave her behind. It takes on a vile tinge that was never really there before. In the writing and most other productions of Evita, Eva’s insistence that he take her to Buenos Aires is played for its precociousness, a girl’s foolish attachment to an older man who won’t love her and can’t help her in the city. But Eva was never even interested in Magaldi. He was a way out.
Reficco reappears several times, even once Pfeiffer takes over as Eva. Her younger self always has a suitcase in hand, always looks like she’s been tossed from one place to another. She’s a reminder of what Eva has had to go through to get where she is and who she will always be on the inside. When Eva connects with Juan Perón, she cruelly tosses out the young woman she finds in his bed. “Hello and goodbye!” she sings. “I’ve just unemployed you. /…So move, funny face!” The ejected woman, known only as “Mistress” (another bold stroke of woman-hating on the writers’ part) sings “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” about being thrown out on her ass with nowhere to go. Usually, Che, Evita’s omnipresent narrator, shows up and answers the Mistress’ query, “So what happens now?” Cannold has Pfeiffer’s Eva hear the beginning of this song and realize she’d been unnecessarily mean. She turns around and not only is the Mistress there, but Eva’s younger self is also present. When the Mistress asks what will happen, Eva joins with the remembrance of her youth to turn the push out the door into an encouraging push forward: “You’ll get by, you always have before.” Cannold lets the women help each other instead of merely tearing each other down.
But what of Che? In a production that works overtime to support the women, what happens to the other leading character? He’s forgotten, it turns out. Where Cannold’s production is less successful, unfortunately, is in giving Che any perspective or consequence. Eva charges through life with a fierceness that is paralleled in Che’s commentary about her ascent and his continual reminders that she didn’t really help the working class as much as is being portrayed. He can be read a lot of ways and his actual function is open to interpretation, but Cannold doesn’t take a stance on him at all. Jason Gotay comes out and sings well, but doesn’t stir up any feelings, positively or negatively. In this production, his presence feels unnecessary. The musical needs to push forward with Eva and Che finally confronting each other in a sweeping waltz right before she gets sick. When the two forces finally crash into each other, it should feel momentous, but “Waltz for Eva and Che” passes by like it didn’t even happen.
Jason Sherwood’s set is a series of floating floral altars that rise and fall to form sculptural spaces for Eva’s funeral and the famous Casa Rosada balcony scene. They’re beautiful when employed, but not exactly functional. When they’re all on the stage floor, Pfeiffer and Gotay have to awkwardly climb over them to move downstage. When they’re tiered from the ground up during “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, the front three and the back three trap Pfeiffer between them and made me wonder what would happen if she needed to make a quick exit. Bradley King’s lighting uses color in beautiful and surprising ways, amplifying the world around the characters who dress mostly in white, black, and gray (the costumes are by Alejo Vietti).
Webber’s score is filled with undeniable jams. The score clicks in a way that virtually all of his other musicals do not. There’s a distinct auditory world that doesn’t sound like he’s aping another composer. When the songs hit their groove and the singers soar, it’s some powerful stuff. Rice’s lyrics rarely make sense and are sometimes almost gibberish, but they’re not really the point. Webber’s music is telling the story and defining the characters itself. Adding in Cannold’s revelatory vision and Pfeiffer’s star-confirming performance, it’s absolutely the best way to see Evita short of a time machine to the original production.