For someone who has never seen Evita before, this is a perfectly acceptable introduction that gives a fair overview of the whole with excellent collective production values, far more sophisticated than in the original versions. However, it fails to reach the expressive heights that are available because it is one of those shows that must have leads that command the same larger-than life ambitions and talents as the characters depicted. As my companion observed, it was telling that even in an age of automatic, routine standing ovations, the press night audience for the most part stayed put.
It is hard to come to this show with an innocent eye, given the number of productions it has received around the world since 1978. Any review has to record the particular strengths and weaknesses of a new production to be sure, but also to attempt to see it through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with the life and after-life of Maria Duarte, her elaborate self-construct, Eva Perón, and this, her famous musical apotheosis.
On this basis the show itself definitely ‘comes up roses’. Indeed it would be fair to say that it really does represent the natural culminating collaboration between Lloyd Webber and Rice, and not simply factually their last. It is hard, as they saw, to see where they could have gone next together.
The lyrics and book come over as much more nuanced and balanced than this reviewer recalls. This is far from being a blanket endorsement of Evita’s undoubted courage, chutzpah, and determination to overcome all obstacles, whether poverty, men, the aristocracy or cancer. In fact, through the ahistorical narrative device of Che we have a sceptical commentary about her motives and achievements running throughout which gives the audience quite enough to make up their own minds. It may be implausible now to see Che Guevara as in any sense of a voice of balance and reason, but so far as Evita is concerned the balance sheet is fairly drawn up.
It is easy to forget that there is more here than the many reprises, as song and orchestral motif, of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina. If there is a lot of self-consciously operatic plangency it is still justified because there is so much of Eva Perón that was studied self-dramatisation in actual fact. But as you cast your eye down the song list you see that there are 28 numbers in all, many short and highly contrasted in mood, which give a great variety of rhythms and moods, especially in the epic sweep of the first half. This is one of Lloyd Webber’s very best scores, where the Latin numbers, the religious requiem sequences and the operatic set pieces all blend in successful musical and dramatic synergy.
If there is a problem it lies in that familiar bane of musicals, the ‘curse of the interval’. There is a tremendous energy and flow to Act One, culminating in the successful rise to power of Eva and Juan; but Act Two struggles to revive and sustain the same momentum, offering more a sequence of set pieces that are fine on their own but cease to be filled with the pulse of an emerging story. Once Evita’s health and energy begin to fade, so frankly does the energy of the show and our focus and attention. If only it could have been written straight through…
Still in this new production the collective values are excellently enacted. We have a crack company here, full of excellent dancers and singers, who dispatch the set-piece numbers with a suitable panache that commands the stage. On this Night of a Thousand Stars glitters, tilts and sways as it should; A New Argentina is in many ways the high-point of the evening and not just the end of the first half; And the Money Keeps Rolling in had all the right satirical bite and heft.
In this they are assisted by a flexible and imposing set by Matthew Wright built around columns that could be taken up into the flies and two parallel staircases that could be recessed or brought forward at will. We moved from balconies for trysts and lullabies to imposing neo-classical dictator-chic within seconds.
This is important if a sense of pace is to be maintained through the sequence of historical and political scenes. Likewise the period costumes glittered and impressed amid some very quick changes. Military uniforms paraded, stylish gowns sashayed, and grim fatigues with sinister shades loomed in the background.
Musical director David Steadman led a brisk account of the score, though there were no strings sadly. It was all rather too over-amplified for this reviewer’s taste and hearing. Bill Deamer’s choreography was Latin-inspired, but rightly eclectic too, including a particularly delightful camp mirror routine for Rainbow High. It was delicious to see the teasing wit of the lyrics literally mirrored in the movement. Dior would have adored it…
There are some serious problems though with some of the leads which prevent this otherwise excellent production from receiving a high rating overall.
On the plus side, Sarah O’Connor gave the best account of Another Suitcase, Another Hall, this reviewer has ever heard – pure of tone, precise of diction, wan, yet low-key defiant, just as it should be. There is also excellent work from Oscar Blamaseda as Magaldi, the oleaginous crooner, who has to sing very well without ever getting very much credit, given his place in the drama. If he were less good we would notice it. Kevin Stephen-Jones brings all his extensive actorly experience to the role of Perón, and invests him with more gravitas and self-awareness than usual. No mere military acolyte, he.
There are real difficulties, though, with the casting of Gian Marco Schiaretti as Che and Emma Hatton, in the title role. Schiaretti sings more than adequately, coping well with some of the stratospherically high writing in the second half. However, his acting is simply two-dimensional for a figure who must act as the conscience of the show and main communicator with the audience. He needs to command our attention, and too often he appears as a spectator not just of the action but of the show itself.
Hatton’s best moments are in the sections of political plotting or seduction. She delivers I’d be surprisingly good for you with insinuating determination, and she can be quite affecting in the songs in Act Two where she gradually comes to terms with her failing powers.
However, in the songs where she has to create and then play up to her public persona her tone is too forced and her persona too cold and rigid. Her dancing does not survive comparison with the chorus either. This is not an incompetent or lazy performance, just a very limited one in a part that demands a very wide emotional and technical range. We don’t feel or see her progression from working-class wannabe through to effortless diva – she is largely the same throughout.
To return to our starting point…for someone who has never seen this musical before, this is a perfectly acceptable introduction that gives a fair overview of the whole with excellent collective production values, far more sophisticated than in the original versions. However, it fails to reach the expressive heights that are available because it is one of those shows that must have leads that command the same larger-than life ambitions and talents as the characters depicted. As my companion observed, it was telling that even in an age of automatic, routine standing ovations, the press night audience for the most part stayed put.