Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 20th August, 2013
There are only three Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals I enjoy: the Joseph one, the Jesus one, and this one. All three concern an individual who achieves greatness in one way or another, although only the first one ends happily.
Evita is the most ambivalent of the three. Were it not for the cynical and sarcastic narration of Che, it would be easy to regard the central character as a kind of Lady Diana figure – I believe there are some people who see it as a Cinderella, rags-to-riches tale, but they are missing the point.
It begins in an Argentine cinema. The screening is interrupted by the announcement of the death of the First Lady. It’s a “Where were you when Kennedy died?” kind of moment. (Or “What were you wearing when Versace was shot?”) Cut to the full pomp of a state funeral, complete with Latin incantations. The blaring discord of Eva’s requiem mass gives us a hint: something is up! Che steps forward for Oh, What A Circus! framing our perception of Eva from that point on. Marti Pellow looks good if a little gaunt in khaki. He hits the notes and goes through the motions, but sings without conviction. He doesn’t believe a word he is singing. I found him a little too wet, wet, wet for Che’s dry, dry, dry humour.
We meet Eva Duarte in a parochial bar. A fling with a travelling singer (an appropriately cheesy Nic Gibney) is her ticket to Buenos Aires. She is a transparent Machiavel, beavering her way to the top. But what is also clear is that Madalena Alberto is a major talent. Her performance is the engine of this production. You want to applaud and cheer everything she does but don’t want it to seem like you are condoning Eva’s actions. She meets Juan Peron and seduces him with I’d Be Surprising Good For You – the show really does have some of Lloyd Webber’s best tunes (even if Magaldi’s Night of a Thousand Stars is a direct rip-off of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom Wine…) As Peron, Mark Heenehan is very strong, keeping on the right side of operatic, bombastic in public and tender in private. His election promises are attractive (Nationalisation of industries under foreign control, tackling poverty and social injustice) and you think, yes, please, we could do with some of that here. Of course, it’s all empty talk. Once in power, the Perons turn out to be like politicians everywhere. Eva claims her jewels and finery are for everyone – the claims ring as hollow as Cameron’s “all in this together” bullshittery.
The staging is kept simple but is evocative of place and period. Archways suggest power and permanence, but staircases also feature a great deal, suggesting the climb of Eva’s status. The choreography supports the design aesthetic: the aristocracy and the military both have elements of the tango in their movements, although clipped and controlled. There is a sort of musical chairs number in which the military are picked off one by one and led away with sacks over their heads that is especially chilling, reminding me of how much the piece has in common with Cabaret in its depiction of the rise of fascism. It is Lloyd Webber’s most Brechtian show – but what are we meant to consider? This changes every time I see the show. This one comes post-Thatcher’s funeral, and Eva’s number Rainbow High reminds me of the shaping and styling our first woman prime minister went through to create her media image.
Eva appears on balcony for Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, the show’s most iconic number, sparkling in a gown like a Disney princess. In context, you realise it’s all spin and manipulation and I think this is the contemporary message of the show. Don’t be seduced. Don’t fall for the spin. These people are corrupt and do not have your interests at heart.
Her come-uppance is not from political means. Instead she is toppled from power by that great democrat, Death. She grows visibly frailer – again a testament to the talent of Alberto – and we are reminded that beneath all the manipulations and machinations, she is a human being after all. But, as with Thatcher, frailty at the end of life does not excuse the actions perpetrated in good health. Since the film version, the show includes added song You Must Love Me – it’s a lovely tune but I think gilds the lily somewhat. We only really need Eva’s Lament for the emotional twist of the knife at the end, in which she cries out to her unborn children to understand what she has done.
A high-quality production, with an excellent company, Evita is always worth seeing, and always provokes different thoughts. It was gratifying to hear, when we were filing out of the auditorium that people were singing the praises of Madalena Alberto rather than the character she so powerfully portrays.