The Pieter Toerien and David Ian staging of the original West End and Broadway production of Evita, the iconic rock musical by Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), at the Artscape Opera House is part of the 40th anniversary international tour. It sees the sensational Emma Kingston in the lead role of Eva Peron, in this rags-to-riches story that explores themes of populism, popularity and (abuse of) power.
Before reflecting on this staging of Evita the Musical, which I have already seen twice since its opening at the Artscape Opera House, I thought it only fair to engage with the rationale that informed the original staging first. Why you may wonder? Because this staging is billed as informed by the the original Evita, now again (re)created by the original creative team under direction of Hal Prince. As Evita the Musical’s lyrics are by Tim Rice, I found myself turning to his autobiography, Oh What A Circus (specifically pages 101 to 121) to consider the context in which I am to appreciate this latest Evita as seen through the eyes of narrator Che:
“Apart from the device of using fellow Argentine Che Guevara as a narrator, there is nothing in the text of Evita that does not stand up to historical scrutiny, and although I am well aware that Guevara never met Eva, it is more than likely that his subsequent career was at least in part influenced by his early life under, and a distaste for, the Peron regime… Guevara was just as ambitious, self-obsessed, fanatical and intolerant as Evita… I decided (still without actually saying our Che was Che Guevara) to incorporate this strange ambition into the show, enabling us to suggest that Che and Eva were really cut from the same grasping cloth”.
Rice himself admits this to be a “mischievous viewpoint”. The Eva – who subjective narrator Che follows around, arguably as a manifestation of her conscience – strategically escapes her working class youth to seek fame in Buenos Aires by associating with influential men, establishing herself as an actress, and eventually taking on the ultimate roles of wife to Lieutenant General (later President) Peron and saint to the people of Argentina, specifically the working class she once escaped. By juxtaposing the two principal characters, Rice reveals Evita as a woman who both “manipulates and brilliantly encourages” those she needs (descamisado) and those who need her (Peron).
In exposing all this, the musical is in essence a 'dance', which eventually leads to the "Waltz for Eva and Che". This song highlights their anger and cynicism, but also hints to them knowing tragedy is inevitable, as they sing, “There is evil, ever around. Fundamental system of government. Quite incidental”. After that, the audience witnesses Eva’s deterioration, death, and an Argentina in mourning. This waltz-inspired theatrical confrontation is a true turning point in the musical. In fact, Hal Prince in a 1976 letter to Lloyd Webber said, “I’m crazy about the idea of Che functioning in the piece, but I think… he should be much cooler, loose and cynically humorous. If he is strident, it should be after the waltz, after he is politicized.”
To the best of my understanding, that is the intention benchmark as set by the theatre visionaries themselves.
On my first introduction to this 2017 staging of Evita, I found the truly phenomenal orchestra to be ever so slightly in competition with, more than complimenting, the performers. This, for Act One at least, resulted in Kingston straining rather than showcasing her beautiful voice and rendering Jonathan Roxmouth’s otherwise excellent elocution as Che somewhat muffled. On the night, this appeared to be less of a feature in Act Two, and upon my second visit to Evita at the Artscape I was happy to find the sound balance perfectly adjusted, showcasing Lloyd Webber’s much loved music with all the charm the legend of Eva herself once used to draw crowds in.
Kingston graces the stage in full Evita glory with true West End flair. Her portrayal does not overly romanticise Eva Peron, but in fact balances both sides of this controversial historic figure. You see her as the determined teenage youth who cunningly persuades the flamboyant Magaldi (Anton Luitingh) to take her along with him to Buenos Aires, Big Apple, before she matures in front of your eyes into the woman who greets him farewell to pursue other seductive avenues. It is that woman who becomes the actress who definitely knew how to be in the right place at the right time. After she ‘coincidentally’ meets Juan Peron (perfectly interpreted by Robert Finlayson as a powerful man often in need of affirmation of his leadership ambition), Kingston reveals her Eva to be a tour de force, as she fully becomes a nation’s Evita with “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” – her final Eva-evolution from the ambitious youth to the strategic first lady. I say her final evolution, because even though Kingston does take the audience through Eva’s last life-chapter, from illness to death, she stays on point with the fact that her character’s determination of spirit never waivers even though her body cannot keep up with her will.
To match Kingston’s performance as Eva one then needs a Che that is everything Rice initially envisioned: a mirror image of her ambition, but also a bit mischievous in his telling of her tale. You need a Che that does not necessarily detest Eva personally, but rather detests the regime she represents, so as to allow the audience to be swept up along with the people of Argentina if they so wish. You look for a carefully drawn emotional balance between love and hate – as Prince himself stated, Che’s character reveals cynical humour before he becomes strident and completely politically driven.
In his portrayal of Che, Roxmouth’s vocal performance is the epitome of exquisite precision with every note he sings. His performance is brilliant. However, in the midst of the perfection, I was left feeling somewhat detached from the legend that took a country by storm, as I only met her through the eyes of a sarcastic, sullen, already politically jaded, Che. I find something of the unspoken emotional connection that ultimately leads Eva and Che to their waltz-confrontation to be missing. Roxmouth’s portrayal is very dark and pronounced in demeanour from the start, what I would imagine the 1976 Prince referenced strident Che to be. Because of this interpretative choice, Roxmouth does not reveal to the audience the evolution his character undergoes, alongside his telling of Eva’s manoeuvres to the top. Some modest humour, along with a touch of empathy for the woman cut from the same cloth as Che, seems amiss in his prominent cynicism. His performance is nevertheless noteworthy.
Another noteworthy performance is that of Isabella Jane as the Mistress. Her rendition of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is delicately nuanced and heartbreakingly beautiful. The appeal of this staging of Evita is also found in another two striking and memorable scenes that linger once one exits the Opera House: the one being the “The Art of the Possible” (with the military leaders of Argentina literally rocking it out for the top seat with dramatic lighting and soldierly precision) and “Santa Evita” (featuring the angelic voices of a choir of children alongside the rest of the ensemble).
Evita is undoubtedly a Rice and Lloyd Webber collaborative masterpiece that has gifted many theatre lovers at least one, if not two favourite songs. To experience the latest anniversary staging as re-envisioned by the original creative team, get yourself to the Artscape Opera House by 7 January 2018. Book your tickets through Computicket.