Evita

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

THIS year Evita is 33 years old, the same age as María Eva Duarte de Perón when she died of cervical cancer and headed off to immortality in 1952.

The appeal of the musical is easy to see with songs everyone knows including a couple of massive chart hits and a rags to riches story of a glamorous, mysterious beauty from an exotic land far away.

I suspect that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's fourth musical, first performed in 1978, is also the reason for the continuing popular interest in Eva Peron, without Evita she would probably have been consigned to studies by academics and Latin America scholars with the odd biography on her various anniversaries stacked up in Argentinian supermarkets. Hands up anyone who had even heard of her before the hit 1976 concept album?

There is always a danger with shows with long histories that they can look jaded and tired but this Bill Kenwright production – he also directed it with Bob Tomson – has managed to keep the musical fresh,  modern and up to date and is unreservedly operatic in its staging, a big production in every way.

There are sumptuous sets from designer Matthew Wright with huge columns, rising and falling from the flies, balconies and balustrades gliding in and out and even a bier complete with expensive looking coffin which appears to float across the stage.

The big scenes are staged like giant tableaux with little touches in the background or vignettes to the side to illustrate the main action.

Mixed in with the wannabe opera though is a real song and dance musical choreographed by Bill Deamer with some great dance numbers from the chorus.

Whether we will ever know the truth when it comes to Eva Peron remains to be seen. Depending upon which expert you believe she was either a manipulative, fame and fortune seeking chancer using her body as a stepping stone to the top and salting away millions in Swiss bank accounts with her husband, President Juan Peron – or she was South America's equivalent of Mother Teresa, a People's Princess and all that.

Abigail Jaye as Eva Peron, tragic heroine, saint and champion of the downtrodden poor, or a devious, scheming ruthless social climber. Take your pick.

Evita is firmly in the former camp and this production hardens up the softer portrayal of earlier versions so much so that there is little sympathy or even empathy for scheming Eva until she is dying – a point which hardly helps Abigail Jaye as the legendary figure – although she does die - and sing for that matter - remarkably well.

We are not really meant to like her and, as we are not downtrodden Argentinian peasants (merely English ones) it is difficult for her to connect emotionally with the audience although she did full justice to the iconic Don't Cry for me Argentina and for a moment you could almost believe in Eva as our savious.

For those unfamiliar with the plot Eva is a teenager with an eye on the main chance in a tango club out in the sticks when we first meet her where she uses her horizontal charms to blackmail tango singer Magaldi to take her to Buenos Aires.

The smarmy Magaldi is played with unctuous delight by Reuben Kaye who also shows a fine voice in On this Night of a Thousands Stars and Eva, Beware of the City.

In Buenos Aires Magaldi has served his purpose and is dumped as Eva sleeps her way up the social and political ladders all to music, Goodnight and Thank You, with a growing chorus of ex-lovers.

Eventually her revolving bed stops though when the ambitious lady find an equally ambitions man in Colonel Juan Peron.

Mark Heenehan adds gravitas and a fine baritone to the role and whoever the real Eva was she certainly helped keep Peron in power in a country where democracy was not so much how many votes you had but how many soldiers you controlled. A point illustrated with stark brutality in The Art of the Possible as Peron plays a deadly game of musical chairs with losers hooded and dragged away, illustrating the underlying brutality of Argentinian politics.

A point emphasised again with two Gestapo-style, leather coated secret police keeping order and making sure the peasants clapped and cheered – and voted - in the right places.

Narrating it all is Che, played with a glorious cynicism by Mark Powell. I must be honest, I have never felt that Che depicted as a sort of Che Guevara character rests easily with the production.

Mark Powell as Che, our guide through the ins and outs of Peronist politics

Yes, Guevara was Argentinian but he had no links with Peron or even politics when they were in power, he was a hard working medical student and yet to become the revolutionary of legend. Portraying him as Guevara always struck me an incongruous distraction.

The character and device of a narrator and commentator who cuts through the gloss and spin surrounding the Perons is fine, I just find it odd that it relies on a random historical character for inspiration, particularly in a country known for right wing military coups rather than Marxist revolutions.

That is hardly Mark Powell's fault though and he brings the character to life with a ready smile, disdain for the politics and dismay at the gullibility of the poor. He also displays a pleasing singing voice, particularly in High Flying Adored.

One of the real stars of the show is Sasha Ransley as Peron's mistress, dumped on the street in her nightdress when the Colonel sees not only sex but political potential in Eva.

Her Another Suitcase in Another Hall was the highlight of the show. Apart from looking innocent and vulnerable she has a beautiful voice.

We have Eva's trip to Europe on the Rainbow Tour and the start of her own charity for the poor pulling in millions, without any accounts, as we build up to Eva's untimely death in 1952.

After a state funeral her preserved body went on display for two years awaiting the memorial which was never completed. When Peron was deposed by a military coup in 1955 he fled and left her body behind.

It vanished for 16 years popping up again under the name of a nun in a Milan cemetery in 1971. Peron, then in Spain, kept the body on a plinth in his dining room until he returned as President of Argentine for the third and final time in 1973! Certainly beats grandad's ashes on the mantelpiece.

Solid support came from an excellent ensemble

She is now buried under locked steel plates in the family tomb in Buenos Aires.

Meanwhile back on the stage the principals are backed by a fine all singing all dancing chorus and costumes which give a real feeling of the late 40s fashions although, unless Eva's costume for the Rainbow tour in 1947 is historically accurate, it does make Eva, who was a glamorous 28 at the time, look rather matronly.

Lighting by Mark Howett is sympathetic and dramatic while behind it all is a fine nine piece orchestra conducted by David Steadman.

The production manages to bring a freshness to a 33-year old show and keeps the Eva Peron mystery ticking over for yet another generation. To 24-09-11.

Roger Clarke

 

Meteoric rise to the top
****

 THIS is a powerful and enjoyable musical description of how a determined woman came from nowhere to become the most powerful female in troubled Argentina.

 It needs an actress of considerable skill and stamina to fill the role of Eva Peron in this Tim Rice and Andrew Loyd Webber masterpiece, and Abigail Jaye carries it off in some style.

 She is a delight, both as Eva Duarte, the sexy young loose woman who uses night club singer Magaldi as one of the stepping stones to her goal as an actress and eventually a radio personality, and as the sophisticated schemer who hooks Colonel Juan Peron, the country's dictator.

 Abigail copes admirably with all the big moments in the show including, of course, the hit song Don't Cry for Me Argentina early in act two.

There is a strong performance, too, from Mark Heenehan playing Peron. His range of expressions are superb and his love for Eva is crystal clear, particularly in the moving scene where she is dying.

Mark Powell reveals a pleasant voice in the role of the Narrator, Che, although, dressed in red tee shirt, bovver boots and a black beret to resemble Che Guevara, he somehow lacks the menace of the revolutionary.

 Reuben Kaye is an amusing Magaldi whose big song, On This Night of a Thousand Stars, is one of the lighter moments in the musical, and Sasha Ransley - Peron's departing mistress - sings Another Suitcase in Another Hall beautifully.

Bill Deamer's choreography is outstanding, particularly when the Argentinian officers march and counter-march to music, in the style of a well-drilled American military unit.

 Evita, directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson, runs to Saturday night September 24.

 Paul Marston 

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