She uses fear and vulnerability to fuel performance in ‘Evita’
By NAILA FRANCIS Staff Writer The Intelligencer
She was as revered as she was reviled, a woman of substantial charisma and beauty who used both to become a global political celebrity.
Yet Eva Peron, the famed First Lady of Argentina who became a beloved voice for the country’s poor and disenfranchised as the wife of populist president Juan Perón, had her insecurities, too.
Of this Caroline Bowman is sure. And it’s that certainty that has given the Maryland-reared actor the confidence to take to the stage night after night in a role that can still be daunting more than 10 months into it.
Bowman has been earning mostly raves for her performance as Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, the illegitimate daughter of a rancher who rose from impoverished rural obscurity to iconic renown, in “Evita,” the national touring production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning musical that stops tonight at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
But even she admits to wondering if she were the right fit for the character, especially given a predecessor like Patti Lupone, who originated the role on Broadway more than 30 years ago.
“I was so nervous. I wasn’t sure I was able to do this,” says Bowman, of rehearsing for the tour, which opened last September in Providence, Rhode Island, and is based on British director Michael Grandage’s 2006 London and 2012 Broadway revivals (with choreography by Rob Ashford). “Your demons start to attack you, and you have to say, ‘No, I deserve to be here and there’s a reason I’m here.’ ”
Ultimately, she borrowed a page from LuPone — winner of both a Drama Desk and Tony award for her turn as the striking and influential Eva — whose memoir Bowman read during her early days on the road.
“She said, ‘You can never approach anything with fear,’ so I was using the advice of one of the great Evitas before me,” says Bowman. “I was, like, ‘You know, if I go into this role with fear, everybody’s going to know it.’ Eva was human. I know she had fears and vulnerability. I try to show her humanity a lot in my portrayal of her, but she didn’t show she went into anything with fear.”
In some ways, Eva’s improbable journey mirrors her own. Bowman, the daughter of an actress, grew up doing community theater with her mom in Glenelg. She started dance at a young age, sang in every choir she could and, during summers, was a drama camp regular. Musical theater, she says, was in her bones. Well before she enrolled at Penn State University to pursue her degree in it, she knew her life’s work would be on the stage.
Still, it’s heady to realize how far she’s come — which is why she became overwhelmed with emotion the first time she stepped onto the show’s faux balcony during rehearsals to sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
“I couldn’t get through the song. I just cried through the song. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. It was a dream come true. It’s still a dream come true,” says Bowman, who made her Broadway debut as the Elphaba understudy in “Wicked” almost three years ago.
“I walk out onstage in the dress and I do the iconic arms. It’s a very magical moment in theater and my life. Depending on the day, I still get that feeling of ‘Wow, I’m up here doing this,’ which I feel is pretty appropriate for the moment because I’m sure that’s how Eva Peron felt when she walked out onto the balcony and they were screaming her name and wanted her to speak and not Peron.”
Though there have been countless Evitas since the musical made its West End debut in 1978 — rocketing a then-relatively unknown Elaine Paige to prominence — Bowman decided to approach the show with little but her own research into Peron’s controversial life. Having been part of the original ensemble with the Tony-winning smash “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, she appreciated being able to shape her character Maggie.
“I kind of just looked at ‘Evita’ like that, like it’s a brand-new show and this character has never been done before,” says Bowman, who left “Kinky Boots” to do “Evita.” “I think that’s how everybody should approach their roles, so it can be fresh and you have free rein to just be open to the creative process.
“I tried to pick and choose what characteristics I could relate to about her and what characteristics really spoke to me about her.”
She found her truth somewhere between the real Eva Peron and the musical’s character, drawn to Eva’s strength and singular determination.
“She is a young woman who is blinded by her ambition and wants more in her life and kind of just does whatever it takes to have the life she believes that she deserves and doesn’t let anyone or anything stop her. I think she’s one of the early feminists, which is amazing to me,” says Bowman. “She just made things happen for herself, and I admire that about her.”
Eva did have plenty of detractors, some of whom saw her as a ruthless and conniving upstart, brazenly infiltrating a world where women had previously been seldom seen or heard.
Bowman is leaving it up to the audience to decide how they feel about her but appreciates the moments, such as her climactic rendition of the song “You Must Love Me,” that reveal a cleft in her implacable resolve. Grandage incorporated the song, written for the 1996 film adaptation starring Madonna, into the revival.
“Evita is at her lowest point and baring her soul for kind of the first time. You see inside of her and for a second, it’s, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she isn’t invincible — she’s just this young woman who has a dream but also she’s human,’ ” says Bowman. “I love that moment in the show.”
As to its vocally taxing and physical demands, she’s grateful for her understudy, Desi Oakley, who is not only her alternate onstage twice a week but her best friend.
“I don’t think I could have done the tour without her,” says Bowman. “We just love each other and support each other. There’s no jealousy. There’s no ego. It’s really, really special.”