EVITA.  Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Director: Hal Prince. Musical director: Louis Zurnamer. Choreography: Larry Fuller. Design: Timothy O’Brien. Lighting design: Richard Winkler. Sound design: Mick Potter. Video design: Duncan McLean. With Emma Kingston, Jonathan Roxmouth, Robert Finlayson, Anton Luitingh, Isabella Jane and ensemble. Artscape Theatre.

KAREN RUTTER reviews

'Evita'

After the success of Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the 1970s, it’s fascinating that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice chose a non-biblical – and frankly surprising – focus for their third major collaboration. Evita doesn’t follow a well-known religious narrative. Its lead character was not, at the time of creation, a household name. She was, by reports, ambitious and calculating, making it hard to win an audience over.  And her politics, like that of her country, were complicated. So why a musical about a young Argentine woman with major attitude?

Because, ultimately Eva Perón rose from poverty to become one of the most powerful and much-loved figures in South America. Because her high-ranking aspirations were tempered with personal consideration for the poor, for children, for workers and for women. Because she died a tragic death, which always plays well on stage. And because she dared to be that thing – an uppity woman.

All of which makes Evita a many-layered musical. And if you start exploring the correlations between Eva Perón, who died 65 years ago, and southern Africa right now, you’d be looking at even more levels of interest. A populist leader promising his/her people better jobs and land? The younger wife of a man seen by many as a dictator, who herself wishes to become prime minister? A tendency to blame all ills on monopoly capital? Tick the boxes. Who would have thought this 70s musical could be so relevant?

Visually striking, literally stunning

'Evita'

But even aside from the engaging socio-political aspects of the Perón story, the 2017 Pieter Toerien/David Ian production of Evita is literally stunning. A revival of the original West End production directed by Hal Prince, it is visually striking, with dramatic music and choreography that finds a solid balance between high-energy ensemble pieces and more poignant solo numbers. The generous Artscape stage is used to maximum effect with minimal but clever sets and video imagery that recreate the streets, clubs, balconies and bedrooms of Buenos Aires, Argentina in the first half of the 20th century.

Told through the lense of a cynical Narrator, himself modelled on the Argentine revolutionary leader Ché Guevara, we learn of the death of 33-year-old Eva Perón, the First Lady of Argentina. We are then taken back in time, to when fifteen year old Eva, the illegitimate child of a wealthy landowner, aims to seek her fortune in Buenos Aires. She goes with a tango singer, but soon leaves him and meets a succession of other men as she climbs the career ladder as an actress and radio personality. She catches the eye of a military colonel, Juan Domingo Perón, and together they embark on an ambitious political plan to take the country – which they do. Much of Perón’s support can be traced to Eva, who has a gift for rallying the poor and especially the workers and trade unionists. She aspires to becoming Prime minister, but due to the backlash from both the military and the moneyed classes, and her poor health, she steps back. Eva Perón eventually dies of cancer, leaving thousands of ordinary Argentinians to mourn her.

Very strong cast

'Evita'

There’s a very strong cast bringing this production to life on the stage, beginning with an ensemble that features a number of faces that we’ve already seen in lead roles, including Earl Gregory and Mike Huff. Triple treats all of them, they move like a well-oiled machine, providing a solid bedrock of song, dance and drama. Then there’re the leads – Isabella Jane taking a small but cracking role as The Mistress, and delivering a superb version of Another Suitcase in Another Hall. Anton Luitingh plays the jovial Magaldi with a nice touch of panache. And Robert Finlayson takes on Juan Domingo Perón with just the right mix of suave confidence, political weaselry and lover’s concern. But the night belongs to the two central characters, and they work hard at it. Emma Kingston is an assured, driven Eva, whose rendition of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina was genuinely moving. And Jonathan Roxmouth simply steals it as Ché – one minute an insouciant onlooker, the next an intense commentator – wry, world-weary, but always involved. He couldn’t put a foot, an emotion or a note wrong, and the audience loved him for this.

World class

It may seem a strange choice for a festive season musical, but there is much, so much to recommend this production of Evita. Yes, the story is interesting. But more than that – it’s a world class production, a superb showcase of talent, and it’ll keep you glued for the duration. I’d book now, if I were you.

What: Evita

When, where: Artscape Theatre until 7 January 2018 at Artscape

Book: Computicket, 0861 915 8000

WS