What’s new, Buenos Aires? Not much, unfortunately, in the West End revival of Evita, that singing timeline of a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. With the exception of some exhilarating choreography from Bill Deamer, co-directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright offer a leaden, obvious staging that lacks any of the firepower necessary to animate Eva Perón’s rise to celebrity.
Actresses taking on the title role face a double challenge: as performers, they have to mesmerize the audience vocally throughout Lloyd Webber’s difficult score, and they also need to be persuasive in portraying a Argentine First Lady who could captivate the hearts of a nation, the brightest-burning being in any room she entered. Emma Hatton has the voice for Eva (although not on press night – seemingly battling a cold, she took the score’s most thrilling high notes down the octave in “A New Argentina”) but not the “touch of star quality,” the ineffable charisma that Eva herself describes. Until her final dying scenes, Hatton plays the actress-turned-political/cultural-icon with a poker face. The lyrics tell us that Eva is manipulative, ambitious, clever, but Hatton never reveals the protagonist thinking: the only Evita we see is the waxen image the star-on-the-rise creates for herself.
Hatton’s supporting cast similarly sings well (or, at least, loudly) but doesn’t bring much dramatic heat. Evita’s revolutionary-cum-narrator Che Guevara makes little impression here as played by Gian Marco Schiaretti, who seldom ignites the sardonic humor in Che’s commentary (by far the best part of Rice’s clunky lyrics). Kevin Stephen-Jones’ Juan Perón, Eva’s eventual husband and Argentina’s eventual president, fares better, especially in his early flirtations with his future partner.
Singing diction is shaky throughout, but that’s as much the writing team’s fault as the performers’: Lloyd Webber sets Rice’s words without much consideration for comprehensibility. Any production of Evita must struggle with the show’s structure too. Despite centering its story on a strong female lead, Evita nonetheless expends far more energy on sexualizing and eventually sanctifying Perón than on investigating her political rise, let alone humanizing her.
But while I’m (as must be apparent) not a big fan of the work itself, I’ve seen productions that have breathed rugged life into the material. That’s why this staging, which seems intentionally evocative of old-fashioned opera direction with its unmoving ensemble clumps and park-and-bark storytelling, disappoints so much in its bloodlessness. There’s never a sense of urgency or passion, either in the political uprising sequences or the multiple funeral scenes as the nation mourns Evita’s death.
One last thing: the cast is all white. No, the POC population of Argentina in the mid-20th century wasn’t exactly booming, but the ensemble in Evita functions primarily as a Greek chorus, not as a precise rendering of Argentine society. Besides, this production feels about as Argentine as Evita’s reflection, straight out of a British idiom dictionary, that she is “dressed up to the nines/At sixes and sevens with you.” This isn’t the only show on the West End with this problem, and it’s Lord Lloyd Webber himself who called British theatre “hideously white” last fall. Maybe he should do something about it.
Evita is playing at the Phoenix Theatre until October 14.