BEVERLY — One of the principal challenges facing any production of “Evita’’ is to conceal the show’s fundamental hollowness.
What’s required is an abundance of ingenuity, a quality that director-choreographer Nick Kenkel has demonstrated before and deploys again in his largely engrossing North Shore Music Theatre production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s bio-musical about the rapid rise and early demise of Argentine first lady Eva Peron.
Kenkel’s two lead performers need to kick things up a notch, however. Neither Briana Carlson-Goodman, as Eva, nor Constantine Maroulis, as antagonist/narrator Che, deliver performances possessing the vitality or intensity needed to transcend the inherent flaws of “Evita.’’
This often exasperating musical has always been a curiously misshapen work. Because it is mostly sung-through and there’s a lot of story to tell, Rice’s lyrics lean far too heavily toward exposition. Beyond that are the internal contradictions of “Evita,’’ which remains perpetually at odds with itself, asking us to mourn — that “Don’t cry for me’’ business notwithstanding — a figure whom the musical depicts as a corrupt, power-mad schemer.
It takes a couple of powerhouses like Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, who originated the roles of Eva and Che on Broadway in 1979, to blast through those contradictions and bring at least the illusion of emotional weight to Rice’s ham-fisted lyrics and Lloyd Webber’s stentorian score.
Carlson-Goodman and Maroulis were coping with external pressure as they prepared to tackle “Evita’’: North Shore Music Theatre came under fire from activists who contended that Latino actors should have been cast as Eva and Che (and other key roles). They are able performers, but there’s a tentative quality to their portrayals in “Evita,’’ especially in Act One.
Carlson-Goodman sings beautifully but she doesn’t yet seem to have a fix on Eva. Even in that trademark sumptuous white gown (designed by Christopher Oram), Carlson-Goodman seldom projects the kind of charismatic presence that would create a truly memorable, larger-than-life Eva — and that would explain why Juan Peron (a forceful John Cudia), not to mention the citizens of Argentina, would find Eva so captivating.
Maroulis, a Boston Conservatory graduate and onetime finalist on “American Idol,’’ showed that he is capable of thoroughly commanding the stage with his Tony Award-nominated performance in “Rock of Ages.’’ Yet in “Evita,’’ especially in the early going, Maroulis is a curiously laid-back Che. While he steadily grows in assurance as “Evita’’ goes on, Maroulis keeps his fire banked for too long.
Nonetheless, director-choreographer Kenkel helps make this “Evita’’ an absorbing journey. This is a guy you want at the helm of an imperfect work. Kenkel previously brought his distinctive signature to North Shore musicals as various as “Chicago’’ and “Dreamgirls’’; the memory of his fabulous 2011 production of “Legally Blonde’’ still makes me smile.
For “Evita,’’ Kenkel devised choreography that is both muscular and graceful, superbly executed by his strong ensemble (a consistent hallmark of North Shore productions). North Shore’s theater-in-the-round configuration poses logistical obstacles — among other things, it limits the possibilities for detailed set design to create a vivid imaginary world — but Kenkel masters those challenges by keeping the stage alive with dynamic movement.
Solid contributions come from the orchestra, led by music director Mark Hartman; from Nick Adams as Magaldi, a tango singer whom Eva uses as her ticket to Buenos Aires; and from Julia Estrada as Peron’s young mistress, who is supplanted in peremptory fashion by Eva. Estrada delivers a lovely, broken rendition of the understated, melancholy “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,’’ a solo that initially doesn’t seem to have a vital reason for being — until you realize that it supplies the single most piercingly human moment in the entirety of “Evita.’’
Book and lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed and choreographed by Nick Kenkel. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through Oct. 8. Tickets: $57-$82, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.