The iconic musical Evita opened at the State Theatre on Sunday evening, and was acclaimed with a standing ovation. For Tina Arena, who played Eva Peron, it will surely be seen as the pinnacle of her theatrical career so far. Arena has certainly come a very long way since the days of The Young Talent Time, when I last saw her perform live. Not only were her vocal talents definitely up to the role, as many would expect after her outstanding musical career, but what caught my attention the most was her acting. I was unfamiliar with her previous theatre roles overseas and was impressed with how she embodied the role of Peron – convincingly delivering a role that not only spanned an age range from 15 – 33, but also extremely volatile times in both Peron’s private life, and that of Argentina. Arena brought Evita to life, with my only concern being the lack of a consistent accent. Her vocal performance showed control and flexibility. Her rendition of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ was as expressive and emotional as a powerful public speech of this nature needs to be – quiet and delicate in some parts, drawing the audience in, and then delivering the powerful declaration in the final chorus that had the crowd in the palm of her hand. Arena appeared quite genuinely moved by the thunderous applause and standing ovation she received, which were well deserved by such a moving performance of an iconic role.
The audience were initially drawn to their feet to start the ovation as Kurt Kansley, who portrayed Che, came out to take his bow. Kansley’s performance was impressive and it was clearly appreciated by the crowd. Intense and vocally powerful, the character was irreverent and fierce, and presented the flavour of revolution, appropriate for a character inspired by Che Guavera. It must have been quite difficult to share the stage with Kansley during the scenes where the character was not actually interacting with the rest of the cast, without reacting to his impassioned delivery.
Vocally, both Michael Falzon (Magaldi) and Alexis Van Maanen (Mistress) gave beautiful performances. The high notes in ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’, in particular, were so ethereally pure. Paulo Szot as Peron completes the cast of principals. Szot was an excellent counterpart to Arena’s Evita, and brought the character to life with his physicality as well as his voice. My only concern regarding any vocal performances was some slight issues with balance in Act 1. I found in songs with multiple principals performing at once, that the male voices almost drowned out Arena. Other than these short moments, the sound (designed by Mick Potter) was excellent.
I enjoyed the directorial choices for this production. Hal Prince made a creative decision to present the Charity Show scene from the perspective of a side view backstage. Performers continued singing and dancing stage left throughout the scene, facing their imaginary audience in the wings. A similar approach was taken during Eva Peron’s speech in ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, when the podium rotated and our view changed from being part of the crowd, to witnessing more intimate moments at the back of the stage. The set, designed by Timothy O’Brien, was quite sparse and simple, but very flexible and effective. It often consisted of a key piece of furniture alone on the stage, to set the scene. A vanity table, or a bed (never both). A few ornate chairs on an empty stage, where clever use of lighting (designed by Richard Winkler) and strategic placement of the ensemble created an illusion of the surrounding space. A metal mezzanine that was effective in several scenes as the location for rousing public speeches.
The atmosphere were also enhanced by the clever use of projections, designed by Duncan Mclean. Many scenes were accompanied by original historical photographs of the people involved, or of the environment. The show opened to the audience viewing a movie from the period that was interrupted by the announcement of Evita’s death. Details such as this enriched the performance, and drew the audience in to be a part of the events as they unfolded.
While details such as the vintage photographs added a note of realism to the performance, meaning was also communicated in more abstract ways. The choreography, by Larry Fuller, was creative and engaging. While dance is used minimally in this show, it is very important where present. It creates the atmosphere that communicates Eva Peron’s lifestyle in ‘Buenos Aires’, and in the scenes with both the group of soldiers, and the high society, such as during ‘Peron’s Latest Flame’ the choreography communicates each group’s feelings as clearly as do the lyrics. The soldier’s dance was precise, but also humorous, and the way the high society group moved around the stage in concert, in every direction without anyone turning, was visually very effective, and supported the views of those characters extremely clearly. The costumes also added to this communication of meaning. The visual contrast between the brightly clothed (almost comical) soldiers, the high society group in pure black and white, and the contrast of both groups with the more gritty realism of the masses added to the audiences perception of each group. Arena’s costumes were also beautifully designed to help portray the changes in Evita’s life from a teenager in a small town to the First Lady of Argentina.
Evita is a classic show, first performed in 1978, that still manages to engage and captivate audiences around the world. The current season in Melbourne is clearly set to continue the tradition in excellent form, with powerful, moving performances in a polished presentation of the story.
Evita is now playing at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. For tickets: evitathemusical.com.au/
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby