Also see Gavin's review of The Tempest
In discussing the flashy new Stratford production of Evita, I'd like to begin with the excellent musical direction. For me, the big star attraction of the 1976 Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice show has always been the score. Lloyd Webber's music for Evita is a compelling melange of Latin rhythms, pop balladry, dissonant orchestral passages, and brilliant choral writing, all synthesized through Lloyd Webber's (then still in existence) passion for seventies funk rock. Stratford musical director Rick Fox has managed to capitalize on all of these disparate influences; Fox wisely returns the score to its rockier roots (as found on the original concept album), but does not allow the show to simply become a rock and roll concert. The searing electric guitar that introduces the harrowing "Requiem for Evita," for example, screams out of the orchestra pit and demands that the audience sit up and listen. I saw more than one patron of the Avon Theatre sit at attention when the orchestra began playing and the guitars wailed. The chorus then enters, singing extremely complex, dissonant harmonies that seem incongruent with the rock beginnings of the song. Immediately, conflict is brewing.
Chilina Kennedy (on balcony, centre) as Eva Perón with members of the company
Luckily, Fox understands that the key to a good Evita is not to homogenize the score into one style, as has been done on previous mountings of the work, but to revel in the eclecticism that defined the show, and Lloyd Webber's previous works Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so well. Under Fox's direction, the cast of Stratford's Evita are presenting the most impressively sung version of this play that I have ever seen. Among the many wonderful musical moments on which Fox capitalizes are "Eva and Magaldi/ Eva Beware of the City," wherein the funky groove of the orchestra brilliantly underpins the drive of Eva as she forces her way into Magaldi's life (albeit temporarily); Fox's direction here really emphasizes the tricky tempo shifting that happens throughout this score. "A New Argentina" hits all the right notes as a rallying song not only for the people but for Perón himself. Similarly, often overlooked songs such as "Rainbow Tour" and "She Is a Diamond" are given their full due by simply taking the tempo a bit more slowly and allowing all the glorious harmonies and Tim Rice's lyrics a chance to rest on the audience's ears for a moment or two. The only letdowns, musically speaking, are "Buenos Aires," and "Waltz For Eva and Che," both of which never quite catch fire the way they should; these are the songs in which Eva (and Che, in the case of "Waltz") is given full reign to express her drive, her desire, and her reasoning, yet in this production, both numbers seem so bland and turgid. This may be more the fault of the stage direction than the musical direction, however. Sadly, it is in the hands of director Gary Griffin that this production of Evita, which could have been stellar, fails to maximize on its potential.
In the program, Griffin expresses his hope that people will leave this production of Evita thinking about "our need for icons ... what is it about us that causes us to invest so deeply in people we know only as public figures?" Sadly, Griffin seems to revere Eva Perón too deeply. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there are still millions of Argentineans who hold her in high esteem and flock to her grave every year. However, the Eva depicted in Tim Rice's text for the musical is not a person necessarily worthy of reverence, and therein lies the problem with the Stratford productionthe text and the interpretation of Eva Perón are wildly out of sync. For the majority of the first act, Eva is portrayed as a sweet, innocent, wild-eyed young girl. When she makes her move on Magaldi, forcing him to take her to Buenos Aires, it is a highly unbelievable moment. Griffin's vision of the sweet, innocent Eva does not mesh well when she is supposed to sing lyrics the like of "all you've done to me/ was that a young girl's fantasy?" Similarly, later in this particular scene, when Eva sings "I tasted it last night, didn't I?," it is sung so sweetly she might as well have been talking about an ice cream cone; there is none of the threat needed for the audience to truly believe it when Magaldi finally relents. When Eva finally makes it to Buenos Aires, the aforementioned number lacks any of the necessary drive, force of will, or excitement.
And there are problems with some of the show's signature numbers. "The Art of the Possible," so famously directed by Hal Prince as a game of musical chairs, is here presented as an amiable game of poker; there is none of the menace suggested by Lloyd Webber's rather dark, brooding tune. Also, there is no mystery, as each losing player's hand is shown on a projection above the stage. Later in the first act, after Eva has successfully wooed and won Perón, the scene shifts almost instantly to Perón's bedroom, where Eva barges in and throws his teenaged "mistress" out. There is so little interaction between the two, and no Perón in the scene at all, that no tension, sympathy, or understanding has a chance to develop. The emotional impact of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," the mistress's beautiful reflective moment, is lessened because we aren't given enough time with her to care. Having said that, Josie Marasco's version of the song is simply stunning.
Things improve substantially in the second act when Griffin seems to finally begin trusting the text and allows Eva to become the cold, calculating lady that Rice sees her as. Both "Rainbow High" and "Rainbow Tour" pack the punches that many of Eva's act one numbers sorely need. Also effective are the scenes in the final third of the show, where a dying Eva flatly refuses to admit she's anything less than she ever was. Particularly touching is "Eva's Final Broadcast." When she sings "I'm Argentina, and always will be" to a sparsely orchestrated reprise of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," I found myself wanting to believe her wholeheartedly, whilst simultaneously pitying her pathetic refusals. This adds to the emotional impact of her eventual death. Other scenes worth mentioning include Griffin's wonderful staging of "High Flying, Adored"Che sings the song not to Eva but to the audience, assuming her position on the balcony of the Casa Rosada whilst standing in front of a huge scrim depicting the "Rainbow of Argentina" herself. This has the effect of making the song ostensibly much more about Che than about Eva; it is an incredible moment. Also, this production features possibly the most entertaining and high energy rendition of "And the Money Kept Rolling In" I have yet seen, due to the inventive and energetic choreography of Tracey Flye.
The cast of the show are almost perfect in their respective roles. Juan Chioran makes a dashing, believable Juan Perón. Chioran's vocals are perfectly suited to the role; he delivers his lines with the perfect combination of world-weary sophistication and wry humour. In many productions, the character of Perón seems almost a third wheel, with so much attention being paid to Eva and Che, but here Perón is a vital and visible character, owed in large part to Chioran's approach.
In the pivotal role of Che, Josh Young is, in a word, superlative. His is a Che we see develop slowly, from an innocent young man in his late teens to the famous guerrilla leader now emblazoned on t-shirts and posters the world over. Young is especially good at delivering Che's sarcastic throwaway lines, mocking Magaldi, Eva's string of lovers, and of course Eva herself. His exceptionally rich vocals are best displayed in "And The Money Kept Rolling In" and a spine-tingling rendition of "High Flying Adored."
The role of Eva Perón is normally played by Chilina Kennedy; however, Kennedy was out for the performance I attended. Eva was instead played by understudy Lindsay Croxall. Croxall has an incredible belt voice, but unfortunately we were not treated to this until the finale of act one, "A New Argentina." Before this, it was hard to fully engage with Croxall as Eva; she seemed to want to belt some numbers but was perhaps constrained by the production's attempts to portray Eva as innocent. However, once she released the full power of her voice, she took control of the stage and of the role. Her driven, powerful Eva in act two was remarkable. Croxall was at her best during the final scenes of the play, where she expertly balanced both Rice's cynicism and his romanticizing of Eva's death.
It is, I suppose, refreshing to see companies as renowned at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival mounting shows that for them are new territory, and kudos must be given to Griffin et al for not simply producing a carbon copy of the revered Prince original. If the evening falls slightly short of expectations because certain aspects of the characterizations don't quite work, at least one can take solace in knowing that new approaches are being tried, and that a beautiful work of theatre is still vital three decades after its initial appearance.
Evita is part of the Stratford Festival through November 6, 2010, at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. For information and tickets, please visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.