Review by Alan Wooding
Rebellion, greed and ultimate power is a strange but compelling subject for a West End musical, yet Evita is probably the finest ever collaboration between legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.
Set in a post-Second World War decade and in a country still under the grip of a Nazi-like regime, the story of social climbing actress Maria Eva Duarte is a truly dramatic one, the two hour show being more akin to an operetta than any of the usual Broadway-style musicals that went before it.
Evita certainly made a triumphant return to Milton Keynes Theatre this week for its 12-day, 16-show run and, judging by the audience’s reaction last night (Tuesday), it once again looks all set to play to packed houses.
It’s a show featuring so many iconic songs and it brings to life the remarkable rise to fame and fortune of Eva ‘Evita’ Peron. Regarded by Argentina’s less fortunate classes as the country’s spiritual leader, Eva becomes the rags to riches second wife of Juan Peron who presided over the South America military dictatorship between June 1946 and September 1955.
While many will remember Alan Parker’s excellent 1996 musical film drama starring Madonna, Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas, it’s this latest touring stage version that really hits the spot.
Top producer Bill Kenwright’s latest revival of Evita opened at the New Wimbledon Theatre just a fortnight ago before it arrived in Milton Keynes for a second time on Monday. And also making a quick return to the new city’s award-winning theatre is former Wet Wet Wet front-man Marti Pellow in the coveted role of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
In the part of ‘Che’ – originally played by David Essex on stage then Banderas in the film – Pellow is once again in the narrator’s role. Unsurprisingly he was also the ‘scene setter’ when Kenwright brought Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers to Milton Keynes last October, so it’s clearly a part he is most happy in.
Pellow – who released a solo album ‘Hope’ back in March – certainly looks the part, although he clearly found playing Che a far more demanding role in this Lloyd Webber-Rice show that he did in Blood Brothers. While still adored by his many fans in last night’s audience, sadly for me he didn’t quite match up to either the roughish Essex or the swarthy Banderas.
His role is said to portray the real voice of the Argentinian nation and Che certainly brought conflict to Evita’s story. Unfortunately it was often difficult to clearly make out what he was singing about. There’s no question that he can act, but his pronunciation didn’t seem to carry, even though his opening number, Oh What A Circus, was superbly delivered.
The role of Eva is played by Lisbon-born Madalena Alberto whose future is sure to bring her more leading roles. The powerful, and sometime shouty, voice of the Portuguese newcomer had a real theatrical quality about it and it brought the iconic Don’t Cry For Me Argentina to life.
She also reminded me of theatre land’s leading lady Elaine Paige who debuted the role of Eva on stage back in 1978, a full two years after pop princess Julie Covington had topped the UK singles charts with the song following the launch of the pre-show album.
Miss Alberto fully deserved her standing ovation at the final curtain, having given her all in a part which portrays Eva from her humble beginnings through to her rapid rise and extraordinary saint-like status prior to her untimely death from cancer in 1952 at the age of just 33.
Evita actually opens with the announcement of Eva’s death during a film show in an Argentine cinema. Then a quick change of scenery sees her coffin wheeled into a cathedral whereupon the entire company arrive on stage to sing her requiem.
Then following the death of her own father, teenager Maria Eva Duarte sets her sights on Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires and while she soon realises that she is ‘desirable’, at just 15-year-old she becomes the lover of local nightclub singer Magaldi (Nic Gibney).
Singing On the Night of a Thousand Stars, Gibney brought a light-hearty moment to the show as he attempted (but failed) to strum his guitar. Gravel-voiced Geordie, Jimmy ‘Crocodile Shoes’ Nail, played the part of Magaldi in the film version of Evita so unsurprisingly, Gibney’s excellent vocal were far more melodic!
Travelling by coach with Magaldi to Buenos Aires, Eva begins to fine her feet. She sleeps her way to the top through a host of producers and finally becomes a star on the radio in Argentina’s capital.
Then by chance she gets to meet – and shack up with – Colonel Juan Peron (Mark Heenehan) at a charity event held in aid of the victims of a devastating earthquake.
Eva cruelly throws out Peron’s latest (yet unnamed) lover from his apartment and that gives a cameo role to Sarah McNicholas whose beautiful rendition of Another Suitcase in Another Hall brings the house down.
Argentina’s upper classes brand Eva ‘Peron’s whore’ after seeing through her charitable act, but she ignores them and turns to the lower classes for support, proclaiming: “I was once like you”.
There is a brilliantly choreographed military marching sequence arranged to they bullish Dangerous Games prior to the end of Act One which heralds the rousing A New Argentina which, to me, is reminiscent of Do You Here the People Sing from Les Miserable.
The moving Santa Evita is sung by one of the children from the Myra Tiffin Performing Arts School while memorable numbers like Rainbow High, High Flying Adored, And The Money Keeps Rolling In (and Out) and I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You are all stand-out songs as is You Must Love Me which is dramatically delivered by Eva prior to her death.
You Must Love Me was actually an additional Lloyd Webber number written especially for Alan Parker’s film so it never featured in the original West End production although is naturally included in this updated show.
In a musical show featuring so many great numbers, the audience’s feet are constantly tapping while there are extraordinary performances from the entire Ensemble … and that left me simply wanting more.
Bill Kenwright’s latest touring version of Evita is brilliantly directed by Bob Tomson while its choreography (tango, tap and that superb marching display) is arranged by Bill Deamer. He recently won an Olivier Award following the revival of the Irving Berlin musical ‘Top Hat’ which starred Tom Chambers and made its world debut at Milton Keynes Theatre back in August 2011.
Evita’s costumes, orchestration, lighting and staging are all first class, yet that’s exactly what we have come to expect from Milton Keynes Theatre. Evita is undoubtedly one of the world’s best loved and respected musicals and it’s certainly one not to be ignored… you’ll cry if you miss it!
It runs until Saturday, June 1 and you can book your seat by calling Milton Keynes Theatre box office on 0844 871 7652 or by logging onto www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).