Evita review – Argentina's queen of hearts as a high-school mean girl

Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, London
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s epic gets a rock-concert revival that features pom-poms and twerking but lacks central chemistry

It is no surprise that Evita is Donald Trump’s favourite musical. The story of Eva Perón, the Argentine actress turned political icon, bears some striking parallels to his own with its close proximities between showbusiness and politics, its strong leadership and its heavy helpings of populism.

While there seems no better time to revive the show, Jamie Lloyd’s production resists the temptation to make overt references to contemporary America. The lyrics – potent, pointed and accompanied by a fabulous orchestra – are left to speak for themselves.

Ektor Rivera and Samantha Pauly.
High society … Ektor Rivera and Samantha Pauly. Photograph: Marc Brenner

It is all very far removed from Hal Prince’s first staging and seems deliberately stripped of its finery. Perón appears in just a white slip for most of the show and Soutra Gilmore’s stage is a set of stairs that neatly alludes to Perón’s talent for social climbing.

The production is anchored in faithfulness to the original rock opera concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, released in 1976 (two years before the West End show). Hand-held microphones, a giant EVITA sign and a jagged sound to some of the songs, especially those sung by the straggly-haired narrator, Che – who, with heavy-handed symbolism, wears a Che Guevara T-shirt – give a rock-concert feel to it all. There are hints too that the production is being played as a high-school musical, with the characters, including Perón, decked in white trainers and an athletic chorus wave pom-poms at one point and twerk at another. Fabian Aloise’s choreography sometimes resembles a pop video with an awkward edge of Strictly Come Dancing, although other moments are eye-catching, not least a modern Argentine tango.

The opening scene, of Perón’s funeral, is pulled off to stunning effect with a sense of the epic forged by a small but beautifully choreographed chorus of singer-dancers whose movements are filled with expressionistic grief. The class bigotry of Argentine high society is brought out well by a group of women in shiny ballgowns holding teacups as they sing of Perón’s lowly beginnings.

Samantha Pauly does not play Eva with the passion of Elaine Paige (the original stage Perón) nor the imperiousness of Madonna (in the 1996 film). She is a flinty-eyed high-school “mean girl”, rolling her eyes, clicking her fingers, smoothing her hair and smiling triumphantly when she dispenses with Juan Perón’s mistress.

Her voice becomes richer as her story progresses but she remains strangely unanimated in parts: her characterisation does not capture the charisma that made Perón the original “queen of hearts”. More problematically, there is a marked lack of chemistry between her and Ektor Rivera who, as Juan, does not muster the presence of a strongman leader. When they sing their deal-breaking duet, I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You, they stand static and expressionless at opposite ends of the stage.

Evita at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre Samantha Pauly as Eva Perón and Company. Photo Marc Brenner (2)
High-school energy … Evita. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Trent Saunders is well cast as Che and it is the accompanying parts that yield the strongest performances: Adam Pearce adds bathos to Perón’s first lover, Augustín Magaldi; Frances Mayli McCann as Juan’s mistress sings Another Suitcase in Another Hall affectingly as she sheds her dress, which Perón dons herself in a clever touch reflecting the usurpation.

Pyrotechnics including confetti and coloured flares may give this Evita its entertainment factor and a sense of the grand, but it never quite has enough heart.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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