For a show about a political figure in a particular time and place, Evita shows a surprising ability to move with the times of its production. Tim Rice’s original lyrics and storyline were based on a somewhat hostile biography of Eva Perón; its Broadway première in 1979 emphasised her alleged Nazi sympathies; now, in this West End revival under the direction of Michael Grandage, she almost seems an exemplar in an age when politics is accepted as being more about presentation than policy. (Juan Perón, in a pre-echo of Blairism, spoke of his stance as being a “third position”, between capitalism and communism.) The ambivalence of Rice’s lyrics seems today not an expression of moral reservation but simply par for the course, now that the irony has entered our collective soul. The narrator figure, as in Alan Parker’s 1996 film version, is no longer the Argentine-born Ernesto Guevara, but simply a bloke called Che: Matt Rawle does the blokiness well, but his singing voice tends towards the nasal and his vowels towards the James Blunt-mutated.
As Evita, tiny Elena Roger brings a native Buenos Airean’s sensibility to the role. She is frankly not as beautiful as the historical Perón (there is something of the Cherie Blair letter-box effect about Roger’s smiling mouth), and her upper register can be off-puttingly shrill, especially during the Act One closer “A New Argentina”. But she knows that Evita is above all an icon: she plays the character as written, does so commandingly and leaves the judgement (such as it may be) to others. Philip Quast complements her well: as Juan Perón he is masterly as ever, combining the sheer presence of the greater historical figure with the knowledge that in this story his is a supporting role.
I have been less enthusiastic than many about Michael Grandage’s recent musical productions: I admired Grand Hotel without loving it, and his Guys And Dolls (still running) struck me as a rather superficial rendering of possibly the greatest musical ever. Here, though, his pitch is spot-on: he combines majesty and Latin American romanticism with enough of a sardonic note, yet not so much as to turn the story into a too-knowing sludge. He and choreographer Rob Ashford also insert a tango motif into the staging, even when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score gives no hint of it, so that we are constantly reminded of the pulse of the Argentine spirit.
This is one of those occasions on which I fear I set out to dislike a production, but it refused to let me. The man sitting behind me even sang along once or twice, which is some accolade considering that he was Rod Stewart.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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