Review: Evita, Arts Centre Melbourne

Reuben Liversidge

Broadway legend Hal Prince has recreated his original 1978 production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita starring local pop legend Tina Arena.
Review: Evita, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tina Arena stars in Evita. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Everything old is…well…old again. Opera Australia and John Frost have recently partnered to produce lavish restagings of classic musicals for Australian audiences. In 2017 they imported none other than the original Eliza Doolittle herself, Julie Andrews, to direct My Fair Lady and this year Broadway legend Hal Prince has recreated his original 1978 production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita starring local pop legend Tina Arena.

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Evita was the brainchild of Rice, who was inspired by a radio program about the life of Eva Perón, and the show started life as a concept album with music composed by Lloyd Webber. The pair were riding high on the recent success of Jesus Christ Superstar and tackling another controversial subject, in this case the political ambitions of the famous wife of a dictator, didn’t immediately appeal to Lloyd Webber. But, after the success of the album they prepared to stage their contemporary opera in London’s West End. It was Lloyd Webber’s idea to bring Prince on board as director; he had seen Cabaret some years before and had always vowed to work with him one day.

Evita received mixed reviews at the time, but audience word of mouth and substantial media buzz made the show a phenomenon. When it opened on Broadway a year later in 1979 it won several Tony Awards and ushered in the ‘British invasion’ of the American musical stage. For the next fifteen years imported mega-musicals, such as Cats, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera­, would dominate the Broadway landscape. Alan Parker directed a film adaptation of Evita in 1996 starring Madonna and the show was recently revived in 2012 with Ricky Martin as Che.

The cast of Evita. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Will contemporary audiences watching the original production of Evita find it relevant today? Well, let’s take stock for a moment. This is a story about an ambitious and highly divisive celebrity politician; a strong woman in a male dominated environment constantly underestimated by her peers and scrutinised in the media; a woman from a lower economic background who rises through society much to the chagrin of the upper classes. Evita still has a lot to say.

Tina Arena is sensational in the leading role. This is luxury casting of the highest order which turns out to be more than justified. Evita is a mammoth part for any performer to tackle. Patti LuPone, who played her on Broadway, has been quoted as describing her time in the role as the 'worst experience' of her career and due to the demanding vocal requirements the 'part could only have been written by a man who hates women.' I don’t know about that, but there’s no denying this is one of the most vocally challenging roles in music theatre. We knew Arena would be up to the challenge, but nothing can prepare you for the clarity, power and raw emotion of her voice. Her high belt is effortless, her mix is gorgeous and her diction superb. She can act up a storm too instilling her Eva with charm, passion and a dash of vulnerability. When she appeared on the bridge at the start of Act Two in that dress to sing that famous song the anticipation in the audience was palpable. This is what we’ve waited for and when it happens it’s one of those moments in the theatre you hear about, but rarely get to experience for yourself; the stuff of legend. At the curtain call Arena appeared visibly overwhelmed by the rapturous response of her hometown crowd and rightly so as she is giving the performance of her lifetime on that stage. Arena delivers more than we ever could have hoped for in a performance that won’t soon be forgotten.

This production oozes class and lushness. The simple black-box design sets the epic story in an almost rock concert-like arena complete with scaffolding, moody floor lights and large reflective panels that emphasise each blinding flash of light to make the audience feel what is must have been like to be caught in the spotlight of the worlds attention. Prince’s staging of certain numbers, such as ‘The Art of the Possible’ and ‘Peron’s Latest Flame,’ brilliantly highlights the behind the scenes political machinations of Perón’s rise to power and the class divisions within Argentinian society. The staging of Evita is all about peeling back the public persona of these people to reveal the truth behind their decisions. The simplicity and precision of the design and direction is as remarkable today as it must have back in the late 70’s.

Tina Arena stars in Evita. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Brazilian opera superstar Paulo Szot delivers the best sung Perón we’re likely to see and Kurt Kansley’s performance as Che is charmingly cheeky and vocally thrilling; he’s also a dead ringer for the real Guevara. Michael Falzon puts in an appropriately hammy turn as Eva’s early lover the tango singer Magaldi and Alexis van Maanen’s very brief appearance as Perón’s Mistress is lovely. The accomplished ensemble almost never stop for the whole runtime and they bring a thrilling energy to the production. Chorus numbers such as ‘Buenos Aires,’ ‘A New Argentina’ and ‘The Money Kept Rolling In’ explode off the stage and create a sense of excitement that only comes from a talented and highly drilled group of performers giving their best.

Evita is making history all over again. The chance to travel back in time and see the original designs, choreography and direction as audiences would have experienced over forty years ago is a true gift from the theatre gods. This unforgettable production and Arena’s indelible performance will leave audiences in raptures. Evita is hands down the best show of 2018. An opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime so do not miss it.

5 stars ★★★★★

Evita
By Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Harold Prince

11 December 2018 – 24 February 2019
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.