Outside of the stunning original late 1970s staging in London and on Broadway by Harold Prince, I doubt you will see a finer Evita than Tito Hernandez’s current North Carolina Theatre production at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. You’d certainly have to travel far afield to find a more remarkable performance of the eponymous central figure than that of Lauren Kennedy here. And Julie Bradley’s direction of the Andrew Lloyd Webber score — arguably his best — could scarcely be bettered. The question is, as it always was, exactly what all this excellent dazzle is in aid of.

I have never felt, as did many professional critics at the time the show premiered, that Lloyd Webber and his librettist/lyricist Tim Rice were glorifying an opportunist, or worse. (As Ethan Mordden once noted, “The critics were divided — some hated it while others loathed it.”) But 30 years of consideration have not resolved my sense that, remarkable as its individual glories may be, at the core of Evita is a figure less enigma than character sketch.

That the pop-opera has historic and dramaturgical sweep are undeniable, but the musical suffers, finally, from a gap at the center, mitigated by that very historical drive. Taking in the arc of Eva Perón’s life from 15 year old enchantress through her rise from movie actress to First Lady at 27 and her early death at 33, Evita seldom pauses long enough to generate a real sense of Eva as a human being. Is she solely an opportunist, focused on personal wealth and power, drunk with a love of fame for its own sake? Are her personal politics, her professed love for “her” descamisados (shirtless ones) notwithstanding, more fascist than progressive? Despite the hectoring of Eva’s counterpoint, the impassioned and cynical Greek chorus Che (not to be confused with Che Guevara, although he always is) we understand Eva Duarte no better at the muted finale than we do at the impressive opening.

Consider the show’s famous take-home hit. Why, at the climax of her ascent, is Eva asking Argentina not to cry for her? Why would it? It’s Lloyd Webber’s first big Puccini aria, and the music soars in the Max Steiner tradition, Eva emotes and sings her heart out, the descamisados roar their approval… and cash registers ring all over the world. The song’s brassy emotionalism is in the service, not of drama or even music, but commerce; if “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” is not the most inexplicable theatre-based hit of its era, I’m Stephen Sondheim.

Which is surely more than can be said for Tim Rice. Perhaps the single luckiest lyricist of his generation, Rice has managed to eke out a high-profile career on banality, hitched to the powerhouse strains of Alan Mencken, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Although he is occasionally able to rise to a nice metaphor (“The gutter theatrical,” for example) or a tough observation on the hoi polloi (“They are fickle/Can be manipulated”) Rice’s lyrics tend to such inanities as referring to Buenos Aires as “B.A. — Big Apple” or lumpen puns like “Mourning all day/And mourning all night.” He appropriates the songs of his betters in a witless attempt at hipness: “Franco’s reign in Spain” In 1934 Eva sings “Birds fly out of here/So why, oh why, or why can’t I?” The astute will know, of course, that Yip Harburg wrote “Over the Rainbow” in 1938. That’s when Rice is not simply supplying filler, as in the mutual seduction “I’d be Surprisingly Good for You.” Why “surprisingly”? Because he had four notes and no ideas.

For all his growing acumen at that point in his development as a composer, Webber stumbles as well. Evita‘s other big hit (at least in Europe) “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is a prime example of his, and Rice’s, miscalculation. As with “Hard Candy Christmas” in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, if you give your best, most emotionally powerful number to a character no one knows, or cares about, and who is never seen again, there is something curiously wrong in your sense of dramatic unity.

And Webber’s compositional approach is erratic, to say the least. Amidst the masterful use of classical and Latinate styles and the knowing echoes and affectionate parodies of Weill, Bernstein and Steiner, many of his phrases either contain, or end with, notes too low for a baritone, let alone a contralto, either resulting in inaudibility, vocal strain or (in the case of the NCT production) transposition by the performers, especially Eva and Che. The first American Eva, Patti LuPone, later noted, “Evita was the worst experience of my life. I was screaming my way through a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women.” At least she had a few good tunes. Poor Juan Perón has to make do with a recurring theme that is, practically note for note, a variant on the 1975 Michael Masser and Gerald Goffin pop hit for Diana Ross “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”

Why were Jesus Christ Superstar so vivid and moving and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat so playfully exhilarating while Webber’s later work has degenerated into what the comedian Rowan Atkinson, in a sketch about an actor accepting an award, once referred to as “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent collection of Puccini’s Greatest Hits”? Cats and trains he can illuminate, but not, with the notable exception of the “Tell Me on a Sunday” section of Song and Dance, people. Is it his gradual move from rock and pop idioms to a richer-sounding and more recognizably pop venue? A lack, Don Black notwithstanding, of good librettists?

A clue may lie in presence of the show’s third “author.” All of the cinematic flow we’ve come to expect in modern musical, and even non-musical, staging stems from two men: Jerome Robbins and Harold Prince. For Prince, spectacle is never enough; however blazingly theatrical the visual notion, it must be wed, as was the case with his early mentor George Abbott, to recognizably human character and activity. Prince, fusing Epic Theatre and the striking visuals he experienced watching theatre and cabaret in post-war Russia and Germany to the demands of the American musical, has been able to humanize, as well as electrify, Webber’s grandiosity, even as he filters it through his innate showmanship: The swirling patterns of the mourners at the opening; the bridge that serves as a moving set-piece, breaking apart and re-forming to create the illusion of a balcony, a set of staircases or a cathedral as the moment requires; the recurring juxtapositions of acting; the violent imagery of dictatorship as a game of musical chairs; the red satin-festooned revolving door as Eva gathers and discards her lovers; the tight, sinuously elegant grouping of the Oligarchs and the close-order drill precision of the Soldiers; the stripping of the rich as a social metaphor; the thrilling popular uprising of the first act finale “A New Argentina,” which can make you both breathless at the sheer ebullience of the thing and, later, appalled at your own reaction to the unadulterated manipulation of the Peróns. Prince worked his magic again, on Webber’s biggest hit, Phantom of the Opera and it takes nothing away from this Evita‘s director/choreographer, Tito Hernandez, to note that Hal Prince’s creativity is stamped all over the licensed libretti of his musicals. You may mount a new Follies without Prince, but it’s always his show as much as it is Sondheim’s and James Goldman’s.

Hernandez keeps things lively, and keeps them moving. If I have a single cavil, it’s with the production’s over-reliance on projections, particularly the many documentary clips of Eva, which have a tendency to wrench one’s attention from the animated tapestry on-stage.

Lauren Kennedy’s Eva triumphs in every way over the paper-thinness of the role. Having performed Evita 18 years ago, Kennedy brings a more seasoned performer’s delicacy to her approach. She’s so effective at the more sheltered quality of the early Eva Duarte you may wonder how she’ll ever be able to hit those notes to come, but that is Kennedy’s subtle achievement: Making even her voice sound un-tried.

Ray Walker makes a fine Che, handling his ululations with even greater musicality than the role’s American originator, Mandy Patinkin. Nick Duckart does what he can with the mock-Elvis anachronism of the cheesy balladeer Agustín Magaldi, Jonathan Hammond is a commanding Perón, which has the ironic effect of making the emaciation of the role seem even more pronounced, and English Bernhardt scores a coup as the discarded mistress who walks away with that terrific, misguided “Another Suitcase.”

Despite my misgivings about the show as a show, viva this Evita.

The show runs through 10/30. For details, see the sidebar.