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ALBUM REVIEW / POP

'Evita,' Without Tears

The well-produced movie soundtrack has many things going for it, but Madonna's singing is oddly unemotional.

November 08, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

High flying, adored

So young, the instant queen

. . . So famous so easily

So soon

Is not the wisest thing to be.

--Lyrics by Tim Rice

Could there be a better role for Madonna than the Argentine icon Eva Peron, as written by Tim Rice? Still, Madonna had to lobby director Alan Parker to become the cinematic "Evita." The hit 1976 musical documents its heroine's climb to the top, her knack for using sexuality, her charisma, her seemingly effortless ability to embody dreams for huge masses of people. Lyric after lyric in the score serves double duty, applying both to Evita and to Madonna. You'd think Madonna could almost play the part without acting.

"Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Music Soundtrack" arrives in stores Tuesday, and in fact there's not much evidence of Madonna's acting to be found in her vocal performance. Now, the recording may not fully represent her work in the movie, which has its premiere Dec. 14. But what we have here, on the new two-disc CD from Warner Bros. Records, is one flat Evita.

Otherwise, this is a well-produced album; composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen have done a marvelous job with the orchestrations. They've spiffed up the arrangements of the stage version to sound more universal, less '70s. The new Spanish guitars that greet Antonio Banderas' first number ("Oh What a Circus") are evocative, and the song "Waltz for Eva and Che" is outfitted with an exciting, full-bodied sound that's orchestral but not too lush; it's alive and classy, like Bernard Herrmann on a calm day.

As Che, the angry revolutionary who follows Evita around and attempts to be her conscience, Banderas sings surprisingly well (who knew?) and sounds sexy. Though he sometimes whispers and veers a little close to Julio Iglesias territory, he usually gets out just in time. As Juan Peron, Jonathan Pryce gives the most theatrical performance (no surprise there, him coming from the theater), making Peron's intelligence palpable. But he is essentially a crutch for the star role, a partner for the prima donna to climb up on and claim her glory.

Which doesn't happen. Although her range is small, Madonna's voice sounds pretty and supple in her first number, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" (perhaps you've heard of it). You notice immediately that the character sounds emotionally entombed, which Evita actually is at that point--the story starts with her death and then jumps back to her beginnings. But Madonna/Evita stays entombed, even in the numbers designed for a singer to take a bite out of them. Madonna turns show tunes into pop tunes; she flattens out the emotional lines and avoids the built-in flourishes. She follows the music and never steps in to own it, to boss it around.

In "Buenos Aires," the song of a small-town girl bursting with excitement when she first enters the big city, she relies on the prettiness of her voice and provides almost no urgency. When Evita is on top, displaying false modesty about her new power in "High Flying, Adored," she remains uninflected.

*

That's not to say that Madonna doesn't have an interpretation. She does, and it matches with the doe-eyed pose she strikes on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair. Hers is a shy Evita, reserved, ethereal. Interestingly, she shanghais a song normally sung by the show's most passive character. "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" is a sweet lament written initially for Peron's mistress, the one Evita dethrones and personally kicks out. Stars will appropriate songs when shows are made into movies (Streisand did it in "On a Clear Day . . . "), but Madonna seems oddly comfortable with this song, designed for a girl who can hardly speak up for herself.

Similarly passive in nature is Madonna's spanking-new song, "You Must Love Me," a close-to-death number for Evita. She sounds a bit shellshocked in it.

Of course, Madonna's voice has never been a key ingredient in her charisma. She very well may make up in screen presence what she lacks in vocal emotive technique. Or, perhaps she respects the role too much to attack it properly. The Material Girl allows herself almost no attitude here; she seems careful at all times. In musicals, unless you're playing the hero's accountant, careful really doesn't cut it.

** 1/2

VARIOUS ARTISTS

"Evita: The Complete

Motion Picture

Music Soundtrack"

Warner Bros.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).

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