FringeReview UK 2018
A Bill Kenwright production co-directed with Bob Tomson. Anthony Gabrielle is music director. Bill Deamer’s choreography is mostly a good slick affair. The moving gantry design and various interlocking galleries originally by Mark Howett. In such spaces lighting – here Tim Oliver’s – bears a cardinal role of its own.
On the face of it, Evita isn’t a musical Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice would tackle. It’s more a Sondheim subject. A musical about an Argentinean dictator’s wife, however famous doesn’t fit with the mid-1970s. But then it pioneered a willingness to take on historical events and in part became the fit. Still, strip away hindsight and it’s decidedly an extraordinary subject.
It’s great to see this 1976-78 work revived. It catapulted Julie Covington to prominence in the try-out album; then when she declined the stage role Elaine Paige nailed the musical into legend. So with a cast mostly not even born then, in this Bill Kenwright production co-directed with Bob Tomson – how does it stack?
It has some marvellous songs: ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’ starts, more or less ends the show, and is ubiquitous. As if Lloyd-Webber felt he had less hits in him this time. But happily there are others, and one heart-breaker that’s even better.
The story-telling’s nominally compelling. It’s a whole mid-century history of a nation. But it’s not quite clear and this is partly the original’s fault. Moments of flickering power ripple through the narrative, seep through the numbers, though Lloyd-Webber’s punchy orchestration doesn’t always help. It’s brass and string heavy, though with some magically sparing use of woodwind, particularly flute, and guitar/percussion more spectrally used towards the end. Anthony Gabrielle as music director does what he can, though there’s a fuzzing out of keywords, and in two leads, an over-mic and under-mic could easily be adjusted, and probably will be.
Bill Deamer’s choreography is mostly a good slick affair across an unfussy stage floor, with snappy ensemble numbers. In such spaces lighting – here Tim Oliver’s – bears a cardinal role of its own and swivels to glare at the audience on occasion. The moving gantry design and various interlocking galleries originally by Mark Howett come into spectacular focus with their wrought-iron grandeur. Otherwise some plush green armchairs mainly occupied by colonels getting hooded and shot and later a hospital bed are the only set, bar the grand escorial opening and closing: the hushed ebony tomb, Napoleonic squaddie garb, religious light, priests and mantissa’d women.
This ragged nightclub-to-riches and down through overwork-to-death saga is astonishing. Rice drags snapshots of history here; music keeps getting in the way. Extraordinarily, the torch song is really based on Eva Peron’s own last speech. Even not knowing this, the words claim their own importunity.
Glenn Carter’s authoritative, laconic Che Guevara narrates. He’s truly excellent, a previous Jesus in Jesus Christ, Superstar. He’s almost never offstage though as narrator he has a continuo role and gets one big number. Here’s under-miced though and some crucial words are inaudible, like ‘Another suitcase in another hall’ (not words sung by the Mistress whose title song this is).
Lucy Byrne’s Evita has clearly modelled her delivery not on the generic roundedness of Madonna, but on the piercing clarity of the young Paige; a certain steeliness. Byrne’s rightly picked that up, though her mic’s over-active and there’s a shrill edge to the sonics only slightly tamed in the second half when things are a bit diminuendo anyway. Behind Paige’s steeliness there’s a soul, a metrical freedom and raspy risk-taking which it’s unfair to expect Byrne to emulate. Byrne’s experience – a recent Maria, and Fantine in Les Misérables – is more than confirmed here. She’s convincing with Eva’s brittleness and has presence: it allows her to shuffle from ragged, glide to regal and a dying rag-doll.
As Eva Durante works her way aged fifteen through disgruntled crooner Magaldi (a delicious Oscar Balmaseda) there’s a cascade of lovers-as-casualties or stepping-stones and the first big number as they’re sent packing ‘Oh What a Circus’ followed by Balmaseda’s cod-croon ‘On This Night of a Thousand Stars’ before he’s chucked, and the rumba-led ‘Eva Beware of the City’. There’s a rumbustious ensemble piece from Che, Magaldi and jilted Johns in ‘Goodnight and Thank You’ and after a couple of connected pieces we get two of the finest songs in the show. ‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’ is the up-beat to the ‘Don’t Cry’ torch but is almost as fine. Its an insinuating seduction piece full of that heady mix of honest calculation. In this production bth proclaim it’s so good they’re both alone – chucking their escorts of the evening away like cigarettes.
This leads to Eva chucking out her young rival, the Mistress and the piece made famous by Barbara Dickson ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ even if we don’t hear Che’s intro. And this is where Cristina Hoey breaks our hearts. It’s a wonderful rendition, with its fade-out repeat line, pitched here as fragile with an innate toughness. Hoey inhabits a piece that lives outside the show more than any other and perhaps – Hoey convinces us – is the best song of all.
After a snappy back-biting patter ‘Peron’s Latest Flame’ we’re finally with the power couple as they’ll become. Mike Sterling’s Peron comes to the fore bringing with him, well sterling’s the word. He looks and acts the part but is rock-solid as a sort-of benign dictator should be though we know things rapidly soured. Here he’s appealingly full of doubt till a touch of lady M in the night puts vim into his political aspirations.
The rest is easily told from the balcony and light effects, a fine rendition of ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ which seems premature at this point of course and Che’s central presence in ‘High Flying Adored’ as political reality bites. carter’s excellent in what he does too, and stays nippingly peripheral throughout the next stages. Evita – as she is now – enjoys then endures fund-raising fame, political snubs from abroad – nice ensemble work here with tuneful if not over-memorable numbers and out the other side of political narrative.
‘Santa Evita’ brings an aah with a child on stage – ensemble Katie Shearman is quite prominent elsewhere too – and that intimate moment between Che and Eva, a waltz that breaks illness, more ensemble pieces and the final hit ‘You Must Love Me’ as Eva begs for a role she then declines. There’s Eva’s final broadcast and the show ends on a strange narrated diminuendo that confirms it one of the more radical musicals of its time.
The one thing this musical lacks is the chance for any of the ensemble to shine. There’s a moment when a violin and accordion accompany the song though unusually in these triple-threat days, they’re miming; but the moment’s brief enough. So though a large cast is listed, with roles assigned, the cast are simply dressed in various quick-change outfits and sing together. There’s offstage singing too.
Its more than gratifying to see Evita revived though. If you care for musicals that dig beyond the feel-good, you should go. Evita mostly transcends its time, and this production, a strong, copper-bottomed intermittently stellar affair, rings with the justice of forty years. Evita lives.