It’s a tried and tested show, you can’t go wrong if you’re a West End company, but Evita remains one of the best musicals out there.
The West End is often bashed for formulaic commercial pickings, and Andrew Lloyd Webber – with a recent string of not-that-memorable shows and elimination TV appearances to his name – is often used as an easy target. His latest musical, Stephen Ward, is facing early closure after a disappointing run. So it’s easy to forget just how innovative he has been over the years. In, back in the 1960s, you’d have forecast that a man would write massively successful musicals involving people playing cats in leotard costumes, all-singing all-dancing Old Testament characters or roller-staking locomotives, you would have been laughed at – but that’s exactly what he did. Ranking alongside those musicals as his most innovative is Evita. At first glance, it is the story of the wife of famous/notorious Argentine president Juan Perón. Not far beneath the surface, however, is the story of what was going on in Argentina at the time. Can you make an interesting musical about Argentine politics? Yes you can. And the credit must, of course, be shared with Tim Rice for creating such a convincing world.
Perhaps the most enduring asset of Evita is how relevant it has remained. It is over 35 years since the musical began, and 60 years since the Eva Perón era, but the things in the world that made the Peróns possible haven’t changed. Governments who rise by the coup who are doomed to fall by the coup. The irresistible appeal amongst a disenchanted working class of someone who used to be one of them. The strength of the masses, and the power one or two charismatic speakers can have to mobile them. Euphoria when an unpopular government is booted out by a new one promising better. Cold reality when it sinks in that the new regime isn’t much better than the old one. The way that some of the most impoverished and disenfranchised people in society idolise some of the richest and most powerful, as long as they look glamorous. The lengths politicians to go in order to meet expectations of glamour. It’s ironic that something that happened in the 1940s could just as easily happen today.
This tour is a Bill Kenwright production rather than Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s own Really Useful Group, but they’re both large-scale West End-centric companies, and with a tried and tested musical like this one you can’t really go wrong. The cast, crew and musicians are fully up to scratch for the performance, and they do the musical justice. One small irritation was a number of technical issues at the beginning of the performances: wobbly sets, tape marking set locations that made the floor look like it was covered in chewing gum, and a poor sound balance during narrator Ché’s opening number. Okay, it was a Tuesday performance when you’d expect teething problems in a new theatre, but one would have thought that Newcastle Theatre Royal and Bill Kenwright Productions between them ought to have these problems under control. But these are minor issues that don’t spoil the performance once it gets going.
One word of caution: if you were expecting a scene-by-scene reproduction of the 1996 film with Madonna as Evita, you might be disappointed. Some uber-lavish West End productions might have numerous sets whizzing in and out of the wings to create the numerous locations in the story. This production, however, only uses two multi-purpose sets: one set of stairs and balconies to represent numerous flats, ballroom and palaces, and another set of pillars used for various churches and meeting halls. Personally, I think that’s the way it should be – they use the two sets very imaginatively, and sets in high-budget musicals should be judged on innovation and artistic merit, and not how flashy and expensive it it. To make the stage version more like the film would probably require a big increase in the budget, and end up pricing out many people who’d like to see this, and that’s a price not worth paying.
That said, there is one thing that felt missing: the crowd scenes. Writers and directors usually find clever ways representing crowd scenes without resorting to a cast of 60+, and normally they work rather well. But in Evita, the masses plays such a central role to the story. It was the masses who brought the Peróns to power, and the masses the Peróns had to fear the most when things turned sour (and, after Eva’s death, the masses who eventually brought Perón down). For all the clever trick pulled off with the staging, an ensemble of 14 just doesn’t make a convincing masses. This isn’t an easy one to solve – doubling the cast size would clearly be unaffordable – but maybe this is a situation where Equity might want to relax their rules over volunteers supplementing a paid cast.
All that said, I have no hesitation recommending a visit as this continues to to tour, because Evita is one of the musicals that so so clearly a cut above the rest of the big names out there. With so many West End musicals being obviously formulaic, it is good to see that a musical that has lasted over three decades has earned it. It is ironic, and unfortunate, that Andrew Lloyd-Webber himself is now tarred with the conveyor-belt musical brush, but Evita remains something he should look back on with pride.