Photos – Jeff Busby
If you weren’t around in the late 1970s through mid-‘80s when Evita had its heyday on Broadway and the West End, missed the 1996 film version starring Madonna, or aren’t a rabid Andrew Lloyd Webber completist, chances are you mostly know of this musical for its one famous song. And don’t get me wrong, 'Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina' is a hell of a good number. One might even acerbically opine that it is practically the only good or at any rate memorable song in the musical, and the fact that it is used three times throughout would seem to suggest that Webber knew it too. But it is undeniably a wonderful melody, and a deservedly famous song befitting the starring role.
What might also surprise the uninitiated is that, in addition to a dearth of other noteworthy songs in the piece, this show is indeed such a star vehicle that it features an unusually small number of characters for a full stage musical. Oh, there is a large cast, to be sure, but only five credited roles are distinct characters, of which only three are really significant parts, and it could even be argued that just two are true leads, in terms of emotional impact and relative stage time. So much of the show hinges on the vocal power and onstage magnetism of whoever plays Eva and Che, and fortunately here we have Tina Arena and Kurt Kansley, who are both thoroughly excellent. But more on them later.
It is appropriate in a way that this is presented by Opera Australia, as Evita was originally described as an opera rather than a musical. Proposed to Andrew Lloyd Webber by lyricist Tim Rice after the latter became obsessed with the story of Argentina’s infamous yet beloved first lady, the (debated) autocrat Eva Perón, it was initially rejected by the composer. However, Lloyd Webber eventually reteamed with Rice after his preferred project failed, and Evita first saw life in the form of a 1976 concept album, as was previously the path taken on their successful collaboration Jesus Christ Superstar. In much the same way, this album worked as a kind of “backdoor pilot” for Evita to be remounted as a fully-fledged stage musical in 1978, and the rest as they say was history.
Although history as such may not be what was most keenly on the creators’ minds. This retelling covers Eva Perón’s rise to fame and power from poverty and obscurity, through to being declared the “spiritual leader of the nation” before her untimely death to cancer at the age of 33. Yet in covering this historical material the narrative is presented by Rice and Lloyd Webber with primarily theatrical priorities in mind, and based on hotly-debated sources. We shall leave the issue of historical accuracy to others, as this argument concerning the musical’s basis in fact is naturally an old one by this point.
Suffice it to say, any commitment to authenticity can be put in perspective by noting that the second largest role in the show is that of a fictionalised narrator, who wanders in and out of the action in a seemingly omniscient and non-diegetic fashion. Ostensibly representing a cynical Argentinian everyman, the character is transparently based on the iconic revolutionary Che Guevara who, despite being Argentinian, had no known historical interaction with the Peróns during Eva’s lifetime. Although the show as presented does not verbally identify him as Guevara, the role is credited as “Che” and most renditions including this one quite unambiguously costume him as such.
This is a slick production to be sure, with strong choreography and a talented supporting cast, but one can’t help feel it suffers from not having a fresh take on the material. I can’t personally speak to this performance’s fidelity to exactly what was staged in 1978 (it does incorporate a newer song written for the 1996 film), but with this 40th anniversary show being touted as “the original West End and Broadway Production”, it most certainly feels like a retro exercise. Naturally, art is always a product of its times – something hingeing on biographically historical subject matter all the more so – and I am usually the first to resist those who decry cultural products as “dated” or lacking in relevance simply because they are long in the tooth. Yet this show in the form presented here most certainly feels its age.
Much like pumping a once fresh and captivating face full of Botox in a futile attempt to maintain the lustre of youth beyond its years, perpetuating decades-old productions such as this will almost inevitably be less engaging than what fresh directorial eyes can bring to a successful new restaging. So while this presentation of Evita is by and large a superbly well-honed show, its impression of being preserved in aspic is pervasive, with staging choices and design elements that scream cusp-of-the-‘Eighties Broadway far more than they evoke 1940s Argentina. And that’s even despite the extensive use of projected historical footage. Nothing about this presentation seemed intriguing or innovative, which is hardly surprising given that it purports to be, to all intents and purposes, a four-decade-old production.
Paulo Szot cut an imposing figure and delivered a good performance as Juan Perón with his rich and much-feted baritone, while Michael Falzon and Alexis van Maanen acquitted themselves well as Eva’s old flame Agustin Magaldi and Perón’s former mistress. However, they failed to make significant impressions given the small size of their roles, and even Szot seemed counterintuitively much like a secondary character.
Indeed, this show is very much carried on the back of its two real leads, both in terms of how the show is intrinsically structured, but especially as a result of its casting, where these key performers stand head and shoulders above the rest. Kurt Kansley is highly engaging as Che, with his sardonic, almost Iago-like sense of complicity with the audience fostered via frequent direct address from the footlights. Commenting on the action throughout, he provides the cynical counterpoint to the official Perónist narrative, cutting through the propaganda and lifting the lid on the ascendant power couple’s calculated populism in the face of their corruption, abuses of power, degradation of the Argentine economy, and suppression of dissent. It is a fun, meaty role that clearly requires intense charisma to pull off effectively, and Kansley has buckets to spare.
Yet as vital as having a strong supporting lead in Che may be, any production of Evita will ultimately hinge on the marriage of its lead actress to the title role. Part of the aforementioned unconventional nature of the musical’s small cast of identifiable characters is due to its laser-like focus on telling the story of Eva herself, and as a result her pervasive presence makes for a taxing role. Eva feels present even when not onstage, and the larger-than-life myth of the character that is the very topic of the show has to be thoroughly evinced by its starring actress. Tina Arena is, unquestionably, that star. She tackles with gusto a role which dances almost agnostically between being wildly unsympathetic in her arguably egomaniacal goals and methods, yet also somehow managing to feel inspiring through her remarkable force of will and personal fortitude.
Arena embodies this character stunningly. It is no small task to tackle a character who endures and overcomes a fairly intense amount of critique of her sexual mores and unscrupulous path to power in our ongoing #MeToo moment – a critique which incidentally does not feel particularly repudiated by the show’s implied authorial voice – yet in Arena’s hands the character comes across triumphantly. However, one doesn’t necessarily have to like Eva Perón nor approve of her politics to find this fictionalised telling of her life story captivating. Indeed, there is an almost faintly Shakespearean quality to the character in her hubristic grandeur and crafting of a disingenuously self-effacing public persona, which she is all too willing to buy into herself. All of these nuances manage to come across in what is nevertheless a requisitely BIG performance from Arena, whose Eva engenders our sympathy and respect even as we remind ourselves that perhaps we should know better. Needless to say, her pipes are in as fine form as is her thesping, with the stunning renditions of 'Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina' cementing her status as leading lady.
Opera Australia’s presentation of Evita may not be for everyone, and its shortcomings in the uninspired use of decades-old staging are unfortunate detractions from a splendid cast, who give the material their all. For purists or traditionalists, however, this is likely to be a rare treat, as the excellent performances of the main leads would blow the roof off any production fortunate enough to feature them.
Opera Australia/John Frost presents
by Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director Original direction by Hal Prince
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 18 September – 3 November 2018
Tickets: from $109.90