By BRUCE DENNILL
Evita / Directed by Hal Prince / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
It’s a very different experience watching Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1978 musical Evita in 2017 than it was even a few years ago. When lyricist Rice became interested with the source material in the early Seventies, the title character – Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina in the late Forties and early Fifties – was all but forgotten other than on her home continent. And there, her populist appeal remained based on the cynically smart and ruthlessly implemented marketing campaign she’d placed herself at the centre of, convincing first powerful men (including Colonel Juan Peron, who would become Argentina’s President) and then the bulk of her country’s population that she was worthy of respect and, in some cases something near worship. The musical bought Eva back into the spotlight and reignited the fascination with what she had been able to achieve with little more than focused ambition and shiploads of chutzpah.
Since then, her tale has again largely slipped off the radar, not least because the role she played to perfection – unqualified celebrity-cum-political power player – has been reprised by a number of other, equally derisive individuals.
To the present, where finding a country that doesn’t have this sort of leadership set-up to some degree is arguably more difficult than identifying a territory that does. In this context, the mixture of scepticism and contempt that was perhaps overlooked to some extent when the soundtrack’s big singles were chart hits is impossible to ignore in this revival of Hal Prince’s original Broadway production.
Jonathan Roxmouth as Che Guevara is one of the main factors in establishing this tone, being an almost ever-present, all-seeing commentator whose wider perspective gives the audience a guideline as to how seriously to take the shenanigans playing out elsewhere onstage. Roxmouth immerses himself in the role, sneering, strutting and satirising throughout and singing with vein-bulging intensity when required to take the musical as well as the (relatively speaking) moral lead.
He is matched in all areas by Emma Kingston as Eva, who gives Evita all the devious drive and powerful charisma possessed by the original (if the projected film footage is anything to go by). The actress also has a powerful voice, capable of handling the huge range Lloyd Webber’s compositions demand and authoritatively owning the famous setpieces, most notably, of course, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.
The casting is confirmed as particularly canny in Robert Finlayson’s strong but slightly seedy portrayal of Peron (who allows his new mistress to evict his old one and who enjoys having schoolgirls sit on his knee); Anton Luitingh’s hilarious turn as Magaldi, milking the character’s flair for the dramatic and camp to glorious effect; and Isabella Jane’s brief but luminous appearance as the Mistress, kicked out by the forceful Eva but sticking around long enough to deliver a pitch-perfect Another Suitcase In Another Hall.
The set are magnificent, from the incredibly detailed curtain to the moving screen on which historical footage of the Perons and their country and backgrounds for famous scenes are projected and the massive banners unfurled during A New Argentina. The costumes keep pace, with a moment when Eva appears simultaneously in many different phases of her life being a notable marker of the investment in making the character look authentic.
All of this ensures that, though this is tougher material – politics throughout, a protagonist who’s not easy to like and the talk-singing that makes up most of the soundtrack between the big solos and ensemble numbers – to process than is the case with many other major musicals, this production of Evita delivers on every level.