BWW REVIEW: Hal Prince's Original West End And Broadway Staging Of EVITA Is Revived For A New Generation With Mixed Results In Sydney Australia
Tuesday 18th September 2018, 7:30pm, Joan Sutherland Theatre Sydney Opera House
Hal Prince's original 1978 production of Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice's (lyrics) EVITA is the latest musical to receive the revival treatment in a co-production between Opera Australia and John Frost in association with David Ian Productions. Following a successful restaging in South Africa and Singapore, Associate Director Dan Kutner brings the revival to Australia with a predominantly Australian cast for Sydney and later Melbourne audiences. The rock opera about Eva Peron's (Tina Arena) rise to fame from small town actress to the first lady of Argentina is an interesting revisiting of story of political power and a determined woman drive to rise out of humble beginnings whilst also being a reminder of the need to look beyond the hype of media manipulation.
Whilst many will be familiar with the iconic Don't Cry For Me Argentina, Eva's address to the people of Argentina from the balcony of the Casa Rosada following her husband Juan Peron's (Paulo Szot) presidential victory in 1946, they may not be as familiar with the rest of the story. Che (Kurt Kansley), a disgruntled member of the public, modelled on Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, seeks to right the misconceptions about Eva Peron, a former actress come political leader whose death from cervical cancer in 1952 has prompted a mass public mourning. Over the course of the two and a half hours (including interval) he leads the audience through an exploration of Eva's life, from the 15 year old Eva Duarte desperate to get out of Junin and make it as an actress in Buenos Aires, through to the seduction of military heavyweight Colonel Juan Peron and her subsequent lust for power under the guise of helping the descamisados, the 'shirtless ones' of the working classes. Che's cynical narrations see through the 'stage management' and carefully cultivate appearance that is presented to a naive public looking for hope and willing to turn a blind eye to the revolving door of men that she used to work her way to the top and the unexplained inability to balance the books of her philanthropic pursuits.
The production design is as per Prince's original production which featured a relatively unadorned set designed by Timothy O'Brien. A dark steel set, with a movable bridge which later forms the balcony of the Casa Rosada, allows the focus to stay with the performers and the large projection of archive images that hangs over the stage for much of the production. Smaller somewhat amateurish set pieces come on when specific locations require more pointed presentation. The the revolving door of Eva's apartment, the bed that she finally shares with Juan Peron and their suites once married, divided by a door that threatens to break it's frame when closed all have a cheaper production quality incongruous with the rest of the design. The ability to illuminate the floor provides somewhat unexplained patterns and a point of distraction for people with a penchant for precision when parts choreographed to be anchored by the lights wander off point. The recreation O'Brian's costuming captures the contrast between the working classes, upper class and the military with easy recognition. Eva's transition from ambitious 15 year old in a polyester print dress to the First Lady of Argentina in the famous white ball gown is presented beautifully to showcase the various steps up the social ladder.
The original production of EVITA, which was borne out of an initial concept recording featuring Julie Covington released in 1976, won awards on both sides of the Atlantic for its West End debut with Elaine Paige and it's Broadway premiere with Patti LuPone, securing two Olivier Awards, six Drama Desk Awards, an Outer Critics Circle Award and seven Tony Awards including Best Actress Awards for both leading ladies. It is a fabulous rock opera with a range of musical styles and is a notoriously big sing for it's leading lady. For the Sydney revival Australian singer songwriter Tina Arena, who first gained fame on Young Talent Time in 1974 and went on to a recording career, takes on the iconic role. Unfortunately she doesn't have the strength or style of LuPone, Paige or Covington to create a character that garners much sympathy or engagement. Her acting and movement is stilted and direction driven rather than being intuitive and it appears that a lot of Larry Fuller's (Choreographer) dance work has been stripped out of the role. Archive footage of Loni Ackerman, one of the Eva alternates for the original Broadway production shows Buenos Aires as a fiery Latin sequence with Eva leading the ensemble but Eva's movement has been reduced to more restrained movements for the restaging. The vocals annoyingly waiver between English, American and Spanish accents, often in the space of one song and they lack the vibrancy, emotion, texture and precision one would expect of both the role and the performer.
The rest of the casting however is on point. Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot giving Juan Peron the requisite gravitas with a delicious rich tone as the aspiring military leader who takes Argentina's ultimate position of power. The opera singer who regularly crosses over to musical theatre and has graced the more intimate cabaret stages of New York understands the need to engage with the character to deliver both a vocally rich performance but also a well-acted expression. He also infuses the character with the right mix of ambition and an arrogance that considers his status above the scrutiny of his personal pursuits as he openly entertains school girls whilst Eva is touring Europe.
Australian Kurt Kansley gives Che a delicious rebellious revolutionary snarl and a consistent Spanish accent. The London based singer returns home to give an engaging and expressive interpretation of the voice of dissent against the government manipulation. Whilst some of Tim Rice's witty lyrics are lost in the strength of Kansley's Spanish accent, which is potentially more pronounced than Rice expected them to be delivered when he wrote them, Kansley's acting ensures the intent is clear throughout. Prince had Che's narration be the only voice that breaks the fourth wall and Kansley handles it wonderfully as the small trust and steps down from the stage allow him to get closer to the audience for him to draw them in to his interpretation of the events, turning Che into more of the hero of the work rather than the intended focus on Eva.
The smaller featured roles of tango singer Agustin Migaldi and Peron's Mistress are presented beautifully by Michael Falzon and Alexis Van Maanen respectively. Falzon, who is well known on Australian musical theatre stages and his part in vocal collaboration Swing On This, lends a light comedy to the expression of the cheesy singer who Eva sees as her ticket out of Junin. Whilst just a stepping stone for Eva, Falzon ensures that Migaldi's bitterness at being conned into taking Eva and the subsequent discarding once she sets her sights on more powerful men is evident when he is seen again at the charity concert. Newcomer Alexis Van Maanen gives the young Mistress an innocence mixed with a certain worldliness of what is a young woman looking for a sugar daddy to support her, much in the same way Eva has already done during her rise. The role has limited scope as she is bundled out into the 'corridor' with her suitcase, but it is the vocals that are the key to Another Suitcase In Another Hall and Van Maanen delivers the piece with the right degree of emotion and veiled hope as she tries to convince herself that she will be alright.
The ensemble delivers a strong performance vocally and physically, having to provide the visual aesthetic of movement stripped out of Eva's expression. The military ranks and the upper class appearances are particularly amusing but also wonderfully precise. The child chorus featured in Santa Evita could do with a few tweaks to ensure a uniform stillness as one youngster saw the scene as an opportunity to try to pull focus in a serene moment.
Having loved EVITA for years, knowing the concept recording intimately, there were high hopes for this production but unfortunately is lacks that sparkle one would expect from the hype afforded the revival casting. As a work, it should have stood the test of time, particularly in an age when world leaders' machinations are increasingly suspect, manipulating media by silencing dissenters and labelling truth as 'fake news' and to a degree it succeeds on the back of Kansley's strong expression of Che, but to fully realise that interpretation modifications would need to be made. As it stands, this archive revival of EVITA has potential but is being hampered by the inability to engage with its heroine in the way Prince, Rice and Lloyd Webber intended.