When I saw Elena Roger and heard a sample of her singing last January at the press conference announcing this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Evita', she struck me as a delightful breath of fresh air in the popular music world - a refreshing vocal spirit, albeit on a somewhat diminutive scale, since she's certainly 'petite'. Fortunately, her stature doesn't prevent her voice being extremely powerful, and when required, melodically haunting too. And Judging by her performance as Eva Perón tonight and the audience's enthusiastic reception, she's confirmed my first impressions, pulling-off something of her own musical 'coup' in the opening nights of this show.
What's more, Elena Roger hails from Argentina - a happy coincidence perhaps for the producers and 'Evita' fans alike - and since she has a detectable accent, it lends a charm to her role in the show, as well as a modicum of authenticity too. Apart from being powerful and resonant, Roger's singing voice also has an interesting vibrato quality which, though much out of fashion these days, is reminiscent of Edith Piaf, and is well-suited to the era which 'Evita' examines.
Also at the press conference last January, director Michael Grandage - who's well-known for his impressive work as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse - promised something different for his version of 'Evita'. Though decidedly cagey at the time when pressed for information about his plans, his realisation has eschewed the gimmickry and gadgetry often found in other Lloyd Webber productions, and opts for style rather than technology. There's also not much in the way of glamour or glitz either - though Evita's costume for the balcony scene was about as glamorous as you might get anywhere.
Critical to Grandage's vision for this piece is Christopher Oram's stunning and highly detailed set for a Piazza in Buenos Aires. Not only is Oram's set on a grand scale with huge balconies, tall windows with leaded lights and surrounding buildings trailing into the distance, it's also an evocative and strangely romantic setting for the main action, and provides the perfect backdrop which Grandage needed to recreate Eva Perón's Argentinian capital of the 1940s and early 1950s.
Grandage has certainly stamped his authority on the piece, and more than justified Lloyd Webber's confidence in him. He's staged a stylish revival with an impressively harmonious and well-drilled company, featuring excellent singing and fine ensemble dancing, even though there's just a touch too much in the way of tango for my liking - but then, the show is set in Argentina after all. But Grandage's orchestration of the overall flow of the show, keeps it zipping along at a pace which never drags, each scene moving fluidly into another, building momentum and richly rewarding attention.
Philip Quast, as Perón, has a fine singing voice and easily compensates for Roger's lack of height, in fact almost dwarfing her on some occasions. Yet as a couple they seemed to dovetail well, rather than appearing ludicrously comic. Matte Rawle is on-stage for much of the action as the 'narrator', Che, and gives a youthful and energetic performance. Throwing in some cynical humour along the way, his singing is only slightly marred by the tendency to veer into 'rock singer mode' on occasions which I found a little jarring. But I particularly liked Gary Milner's rendition of 'On This Night of a Thousand Stars' which again had both elegant style and evocative resonance.
'Evita' provides a biography of a fascinating Argentinian woman, Eva Perón, who rose from obscurity to become the President's wife. Immensely popular with ordinary Argentinians – but equally despised by the middle class and powerful factions in the army and political circles – she was eventually given the title 'spiritual leader of the country'. But on her way to fame, she apparently managed to forge her birth certificate and passport to hide her real age, and slept her way up the social ladder. She was also an accomplished radio actress and apparently had a head for business since she managed to acquire a radio station (though I'm not sure exactly how). She died in 1952 at the tender age of 33.
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber don't dodge the central, difficult issues surrounding Eva Perón and her life, even if we're not quite sure of their conclusions about her by the end of the show. Storyline apart however, two main problems plague this ever popular musical: the lack of dialogue, and the repetition of key numbers at regular and unnecessary intervals. Both these issues lend an irritating quality to this piece, in spite of the fact that it contains some of Lloyd Webber's best tunes, well-loved by millions around the world, and therefore rather well-worn too.
Unlike most popular musicals, 'Evita' has no dialogue - all of the exposition and characterisation is encapsulated in Lloyd Webber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics. The difficulty with this approach is that we learn relatively little in the way of anything meaningful about the characters or their motivation, and it sometimes makes the task of following what's going on rather difficult. It seems to me that Rice and Lloyd Webber tried to elevate the popular musical to a new 'arty' kind of status by removing dialogue, and relying on the lyrics and music. But, if the intention was to produce a musical which had more in keeping with opera, it fails, particularly because Rice's lyrics simply don't 'cut the mustard'.
Of course, most musicals repeat some numbers - the odd reprise is often included, for example, at the end of a show - but not as frequently as Lloyd Webber seems to accept as standard for his compositional style. When I saw 'Whistle Down The Wind' recently, I mentioned the very same matters with regard to that musical - though it does have a smattering of dialogue - but 'Evita' is contaminated with considerable musical repetition which is simply unnecessary, even if one is attempting to establish a kind of running theme. As a jazz piano teacher used to advise me, it's better to use one's 'jewels' sparingly, otherwise they become stale and unimpressive. But yet this is exactly what Lloyd Webber does repeatedly, and inevitably the gloss is taken off the likes of 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina', which is a fine melodic song that deserves 'star' treatment.
Although Lloyd Webber wrote a new song for Alan Parker's 1996 film version, there are no new numbers here. However, Lloyd Webber has revitalised some of the orchestrations, providing loyal fans with something new in the musical treatment. And accomplished playing from the substantial band ensures that the new orchestrations are given due prominence, even if the initial numbers were a little on the loud side.
First produced in 1978 and setting the record for the highest box office advance, 'Evita' was last seen in London some 21 years ago. Whatever I, or other reviewers and critics say about 'Evita', it will have little impact on its inevitable success, because it's an incredibly popular musical which will almost certainly have exuberant crowds flocking to the Adelphi for ions to come. For what it's worth though, I certainly found this version extremely watchable, entertaining and enjoyable - even allowing for the irritating limitations in terms of the lack of dialogue and musical repetition. With a stylish new look, and a vibrant new star to boot, it deserves to do well, and looks set for a long and highly profitable run.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Dynamic production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Decent revival...the show is certainly a great vehicle and the Argentinian Elena Roger rides it in modest triumph...although the show is pleasing to watch, it never achieves the ecstasy one looks for in a musical." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Outstanding revival...Almost every song is memorable." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Riveting show." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Powerful production."