Andrew Lloyd Webber’s critically acclaimed Evita is a little produced work and one that has not graced a Brisbane stage for some twenty years. This makes it somewhat poignant, then, that the release of the theatrical rights for 2015 would have both a distance from all previous work and a tremendous lodestone weighing around the neck of any director to helm this production – that weight to create something fresh and vibrant to shake off the dust of her two decade slumber, and indeed first time director Brett Roberts describes this feeling in his director’s note: “I knew there would be big shoes to fill in living up to the expectations of creatives, cast and audience members”.
Like many in the audience I would suspect, I came to the show with no preconceived notions about what the show would be like. I had only a small knowledge of the score and the story before walking into the theatre. On first glance, it became evident not only was the show fast paced and incredibly powerful, but that it was a behemoth. A huge and complex show that has continuously evolving motifs and themes, and often moves swiftly between scenes and tone on a knife-edge. Its complexity reminds me of several other cannon shows that are approached with some trepidation – Shakespeare’s Lear springs to mind. The execution of these shows require more of the things that make all theatre good and a little magic thrown in to boot. They require a creative team who share a unified vision and a cast capable of eliciting what is asked and delivery on it at all times. In Evita, SQUIDS Theatrical Inc. came close to the winning formula, and many moments on stage were triumphant.
For his debut, Roberts could hardly have picked a more difficult show. However, he has clearly tackled the work with enthusiasm and with a hand seasoned by years working in other elements of the business. He demonstrated a clear understanding of stage presentation, and the unfettered pace of the show is testament to him. His direction was largely clean and easy to understand, particularly as the show settled into a rhythm in the second half. For the first half, much of the nuance in the story was lost to the audience as some of the themes were not cleanly elicited. Tighter “transitions” and a greater use of the chorus would have helped greatly to guide the audience through the unfolding story and to heighten the on stage tension. In saying this, there were genuine moments of success and gems, such as “Goodnight and Thankyou” highlighting Eva Peron’s climb of the social ladder were very well put together and were a delight for the audience.
Julie Whiting always puts together a good orchestra and Evita was no exception. The orchestra played the complex score with a great attention to detail, and, barring some mistakes in the entr’acte, they were very on point. The chorus was also on form, particularly in the “Requiem” at the opening of the show, producing a wall of sound and fantastic energy and were a tribute to Whiting’s abilities. The precision of the music allowed the chorus to highlight Cara Duffield’s choreography.
A dancer with a significant amount of training behind her, Duffield’s choreography was simple but effective and allowed the cast, many of whom were not experienced dancers, to showcase themselves to great effect particularly at the rousing end to Act One, “A New Argentina”. There was a sound use of a dance core to tackle some of the more difficult passages and this was particularly on display in “Buenos Aires”. Also well used throughout the show was the large contingent of children, all of whom moved naturally on the stage and are a fantastic credit to SQUIDS youth program. Roberts and Duffield both used the children throughout the show seamlessly inserting them into chorus numbers and blocking and this added to the high energy. A particular delight when the children were worshipping at the feet of their Eva Peron, a powerhouse performance delivered by Natalie Ridoutt.
It is of little surprise that Rice and Webber drew heavily from source material to get the more historical elements of Evita correct, and Rice in particular is said to have use the Mary Main biographical work “The Woman with the Whip” as his main source of inspiration. It should stand to reason then that Ridoutt’s portrayal of Eva is an inspired, driving force of nature. She dealt well with the many wig and costume changes required of her, transforming herself from the young fifteen year old with an eye on the prize to the broken woman struggling with her own mortality. She capably demonstrated the pressure to save a people who, at least after her death, worshipped her. Watching Ridoutt as Act Two culminates, you could imagine her Eva enduring by sheer force of will alone despite her body failing around her. Her transformation into the political power behind the throne is entirely convincing, and her overriding passion and focus to be the best she can be is evident from the start. Ridoutt delivered a strong and assured vocal performance as well, capably handling the legendary numbers in the show, especially the famous “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”. There was a brief moment during “Rainbow High” where she unfortunately suffered from a cough that almost caused her voice to give, but she seemingly channeled Eva’s spirit directly, as she visibly willed her body to cooperate before finishing the song with the kind of flourish that only a consummate performer can muster. In particular her work against James Riley’s Juan Peron is fantastic, giving him balance and a strong counterpoint when he is flagging.
As Peron, Riley offers us something different from what many previous incarnations have portrayed. Philip Quast’s Olivier winning performance for example presented a powerful and aggressive Peron, striding about the stage and just as in command as his paramour. Through Riley we see a different man, someone who is quieter, no less in command but perhaps more power shy and reluctant. During his transition from Colonel to President, we see him evolving into a man who wishes for a simpler time – to go and fight another war because it is easier, and unsure of his place in the political landscape. All this was delivered beautifully by Riley, and his clear, sweet tenor is used to beautiful effect in contrast with Ridoutt’s powerful tones. He clearly demonstrates Peron’s love for her, and his fear in Act Two as she weakens and stumbles is palpable. This does not mean that he delivers a Peron without teeth, to the contrary when it is called for he coldly instructs his men to remove dissenters, in particular Che (played to great effect by Nathaniel Currie), who is humiliated and dragged off stage by Peron’s guard.
Currie handles the role of Che with ease and finesse, transitioning rapidly between mockery, care, sweetness, and rage effortlessly. He lets Che settle comfortably into the role of commentator, swinging between detached narrator and engaged activist as the story requires it. Currie handles the huge vocal demands of Che well, although he had some pinching at the top of his register, he however managed to sell this well and acted through it
Che is a unique character in terms of the story, apparently not originally based off of Che Guevara, it is certainly a popular incarnation, and the freedom fighter is often associated with the story. Roberts’ decision to remove that association is a brilliant move and allows the character to simply exist both in and out of the story, moving amongst the action and assuming any “costume” that is required. This is something that Currie did spectacularly, giving a performance that caused the audience to both care about Che greatly, and also be quite removed from him, almost as if he were one of them rather than a part of the show. An audience member who inserting himself into scenes and holding a mirror up to the events, showing them for less than what history has pro ported them to be. Currie handles this like the veteran actor that he is. Weaving himself into the story and delivering some of the highlights of the show, including his brief but powerful encounter with Person’s Mistress played by Lauren Ashlea Fraser.
Fraser, a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, dazzled in the role of the Mistress, playing a beautifully nuanced and subtle character during her uncomfortable interaction with Eva. Her performance of “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” left the audience feeling numb and betrayed on her behalf. This was helped by Che quietly packing her suitcase for her, singing the counterpoint and reassuring her, a wonderful nod to the earlier “Goodnight and Thankyou” and quietly drove home Eva Peron’s view of people who got in her way.
In terms of look and feel of the show, the set (on loan from Willoughby Theatre Company and modified by a set team headed by Currie and Roberts) was stunning. It moved so well throughout the show, and the transitions in that regard were seamlessly done. At one point a whole building had been moved silently offstage as if by magic and the effect was wonderful. A massive credit must be given to the stage crew who kept the show moving along smoothly, under the direction of Roberts who was also overseeing the role of Stage Manager. In addition to this the costuming was simple but well constructed and largely reflected the period and cohesion. The military uniforms were occasionally not identical but this was a minor problem. Also a slight oddity was the wig and dress styles for Eva as she aged and moved up the social ladder. The lightening of her hair colour from brown to blonde was well done, but it sometimes made her a little unrecognisable. Indeed a wig hanging in her face coupled with a slightly turned away blocking meant that during one scene Ridoutt had been on for a few minutes before we turned fully to face the audience and her face could be seen. In saying that these were only minor points throughout the show, and overall the cohesion for wigs and costumes was sound.
Overall the show was quite well brought to stage and the story of Evita was enjoyably and thoughtfully unfolded for the audience. It is a shame that turnouts to Brisbane shows in our community theatre scene is not always what we could hope that they would be, and as such you often have short seasons running over only a week or two. This leads to productions like this, which become blink and you’ll miss it gems. If you didn’t get to see SQUIDS production of Evita you missed out – don’t wait next time. Head up to Redcliffe and see what they’re doing. It’s well worth the drive.