Mayflower Theatre, Southampton – until 21 January 2017
It won’t be easy, you’ll think it strange – but Evita in 1978 was the last show co-written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Despite their later separate successes, it remains an often-overlooked triumph – a near-operatic, through-sung construction, and a fine combination of musicality with a genuinely fascinating, historically accurate story. People have said Lloyd Webber may have underscored Don’t Cry For Me Argentina with a borrowing from Bach – but it’s still an epic of an anthem and what’s a little Prelude in C between friends?
Evita has survived many things – not least Elaine Paige’s relentless adherence to it in any available concert, the Madonna movie – now itself twenty years old – and a distinctly dodgy 2012 Broadway revival tailored around the talents of Ricky Martin who, in case you’ve forgotten, made headlines in leather trousers long before Theresa May.
As a public figure, Eva Peron was both controversial and divisive, I’m not sure a wholly authentic biography has ever been released – but if you go, as I did, to Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires and see the crowds of people, especially women, seeking her tomb, it’s clear her legacy is still unchallenged: she did bring women’s suffrage to Argentina. And the inscription actually reads ‘No me llores perdida ni lejana’ – or ‘don’t cry for me …’
I admit to having had anxieties about the touring version – this is not a show which suits a skimped budget but apart from the slight second-hand feel of the scenery, Bill Kenwright – who produces and directs – has been generous with costumes, orchestrations and lighting. It looks a very handsome production and whilst it may be brave to cast it without above-the-title names, the young company certainly delivers superb singing and sharp choreography, as well as hurtling through the costume changes required by massive doubling and trebling of roles.
Emma Hatton’s Eva is a slow burner, but all the better for that. Her transition from girlish enthusiasm to tactical ambition is well-observed and carefully paced, she saves the raw steel edge until you’ve been won over by her warmth. Both she and particularly Gian Marco Schiaretti as Che have a superb combination of restraint and power in the vocals which makes you hear some of the songs as though for the first time. It’s also nice to see Peron played not by a veteran character actor but by a performer with a confident musical theatre voice, like Kevin Stephen-Jones.
Musical director David Steadman sets a brisk pace, which helps undermine any tendency to sentiment in the music, and Bill Deamer’s choreography is as inventive as you could ask for although I missed the urgency and vigour of the Argentine tango whose rhythms are ever-present in the score and wished they’d got Javier de Frutos to consult on a couple of scenes.
There’s a locally-recruited gang of choristers and local amateur actors who looked distinctly uncomfortable on opening night – it’s a good thing to co-opt local talent but they needed more rehearsal to feel and appear relaxed.
But overall this is an excellent production. Go.