Forty years ago, Evita opened to its first audience on London’s West End, going on to play over 3,000 performances. A hugely successful Broadway production began the following year and, in 1980, Jennifer Murphy led the Australian premiere.
In the vein of the Gordon Frost Organisation and Opera Australia’s recent (and hugely successful) collaboration on My Fair Lady, this new production is about taking things back to the way that they were when Evita premiered in London, directed by Hal Prince. It’s the story of Eva Peron (Tina Arena), the second wife of Argentine President Juan Peron (Paulo Szot). Born into poverty, Eva left the rural village in which she was born at the age of 15, pursuing an acting career before eventually becoming the nation’s first lady and bestowed with the title ‘Spiritual Leader of the Nation’. Hugely popular with the working class, Eva advocated labour rights and oversaw her own charitable foundation. Sadly, her life was cut short by illness, Eva dying from cancer at the age of 33.
Evita is a sophisticated and fast-moving homage to Eva’s life and a reflection on the legacy that has endured long after her death. Beginning with her leaving her family as a teenager with tango singer Agustin Magaldi (Michael Falzon), we see Eva using her agency to climb the social ladder and rise to prominence in entertainment. She then meets Colonel Juan Peron, himself striving to climb the ranks and claim Argentina’s top political prize – the presidency. Quickly, Peron and Eva realise the mutually beneficial relationship that could come about by joining forces. Their relationship has a romantic aspect – they marry – but the union portrayed on stage is one depicted as primarily fuelled by a desire for power and adulation.
Regardless of how cynically you view the coupling of Eva and Peron and the motives that drove their work to embolden the lower classes, it’s undeniable that Eva became a symbol of hope for Argentina’s working class. She gave the people a sense that they could be optimistic at the prospect of a brighter future and no longer downtrodden by the reigning upper classes. In a world where populist movements have been ignited by disenfranchised and forgotten communities, the story of Eva and Peron speaks to the power that can swiftly be seized by opportunistic individuals able to tap into and leverage that widespread dissatisfaction.
That said, Evita does not pass judgment on Eva. While one may take an unfavourable view of her portrayal as a woman who was said to have used her sexuality to ascend the social rankings, one could easily argue this is an individual merely using what she could and doing what she could, in order to pull herself out of the circumstances into which she was born.
In the title role, Australian pop royalty Tina Arena delivers one of the most exciting performances of the year. Already renowned for her vocal prowess, Evita sees Arena singing like you’ve not heard her sing before. Eva is widely regarded as one of the most challenging female roles vocally in musical theatre, but Arena’s powerful belt and rich tone ensure a pristine vocal delivery from start to finish. And not only are her vocals outstanding, but she completely embodies the role; she convincingly becomes this fascinating and enigmatic woman – powerful, perhaps ruthless, but also alluring and even moving. It’s a portrayal reinforcing that Eva was a woman unable to be neatly pigeonholed or categorised.
Brazilian opera singer Szot is the perfect choice to appear opposite Arena as the Argentine president. His commanding baritone handles the score with ease and his considerable presence means that his Peron is believably a formidable force. As Che (here, aesthetically inspired by the Argentine revolutionary with whom he shares his name), Kurt Kansley is excellent. The character not only narrates proceedings but often steps into the guise of the voice of the people, signposting where Eva’s actions depart from the interests of those for whom she is ostensibly fighting. Kansley is bold, energetic and passionate in the role, articulating each and every syllable of these wordy songs with tremendous clarity.
Making an impressive professional debut, Alexis van Maanen makes light work of the melancholic ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’. It’s infused with resounding emotion, impactfully telling the story of a teenager cast out onto the streets but with a steely resolve to survive every curveball thrown her way. Meanwhile, Falzon gives a wonderfully comic performance as corny tango singer, Magaldi, the man who begrudgingly becomes Eva’s ticket to Buenos Aires.
There’s an enormous amount of detail packed into 140 minutes of stage time – blink and you may miss a crucial detail. With that in mind, a quick Google search on Eva and Juan Peron would serve well those unfamiliar with the story prior to seeing this production. It also means you’re likely to better appreciate the high attention to detail paid by Lloyd Webber and Rice, Prince and the wider creative team.
Those familiar with Lloyd Webber from his work from the 1980s and onwards (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Sunset Boulevard among the titles) should take the opportunity to become acquainted with one of his most accomplished and intricate works. There’s obviously the iconic ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ (and it’s one heck of a moment here) but the score is brimming with highlights that include ‘Buenos Aires’, ‘A New Argentina’, ‘Rainbow High’ and ‘You Must Love Me’ (the last mentioned song written for the 1996 Madonna-led film version of the musical and going on to become an Oscar winner for Best Original Song).
Musical director Guy Simpson leads an immense, rich reproduction of the score involving a 30-piece orchestra. And as one might expect from a production recreating a piece first staged in 1978, Timothy O’Brien’s set is comparatively simple by modern standards, but a standout feature of the set is a video screen that shows historical footage of Eva and Juan Peron and Argentina. Designed by Duncan McLean, the video content serves as an ongoing reminder that we’re examining history, delving into the lives of real people who made their mark on a nation.
Much hype has built since the announcement of this production last year, and the final product lives up to that hype. Absorbing, intelligent, provocative and even poignant, Prince’s Evita is an unmissable event for those who appreciate great musical theatre. Whether Eva and Peron were heroes or villains is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Photos by Jeff Busby
EVITA – SYDNEY SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Season: Playing now until 3 November, 2018
Price: From $109.90*
Bookings: evitathemusical.com.au or (02) 9318 8200 or (02) 9250 7777
Groups of 20 or more call (02) 9250 7777
* An additional transaction fee and/or a credit/debit payment processing fee may apply
MELBOURNE SEASON DETAILS
Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Season: From December 5, 2018
Price: From $59.90*
Bookings: evitathemusical.com.au or artscentremelbourne.com.au or 1300 182 183
Groups of 12 or more call 1300 889 278
* A fee of $8.50 will apply per transaction