Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Evita- Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Directors: Bob Thomson & Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Ian Cain

The astounding brilliance of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice partnership is surely embodied to best effect in their spectacular musical biography of Eva Duarte de Peron, ‘Evita.’ With more than twenty major awards to its credit and featuring some of the most famous and inspiring stage music ever written, its position as a monumental musical masterpiece is firmly established.

The part of Eva is one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre and has been played by divas such as Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone, Marti Webb, Stephanie Lawrence and, of course, Madonna in the 1996 Oscar-winning film version. This latest revival, from Bill Kenwright, is a stylish and sophisticated production that succeeds on all levels and, in doing so, ensures that the shiny, polished brand that is Andrew Lloyd Webber remains suitably untarnished.

A tone of understated elegance is set from the start and runs throughout this production. Indeed, the order of the day seems to be that ‘less is more.’ From the set, which is amazingly simple yet brilliantly effective and stunningly beautiful, to the performances which have been rehearsed and honed to a state of faultlessness, nothing is superfluous or ostentatious.

The songs are delivered with a clarity and meaning that is almost reverential, which enables the audience to hear each and every one of Tim Rice’s lyrics.bThe role of Eva is usually performed by Rachael Wooding but, at the performance reviewed, was played by understudy Natalie Hope. That said, in no way at all did this reviewer feel short-changed. Miss Hope delivered a performance that was nothing short of mesmerising, as she captured each and every one of Eva’s characteristics perfectly, reflecting the change and development to great effect in the musical numbers. In ‘Buenos Aires’ she sings and plays Eva as an impetuous teenager who longs to escape her small town existence for the bright lights of the city; she is ambitious and calculating in ‘Goodnight And Thank You’; she is manipulatingly persuasive in ‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’ and strident in ‘A New Argentina.’

Seamus Cullen has put aside all thoughts of playing Joseph to star as Che Guevara and his interpretation of the role is somewhat different to his predecessors. Instead of the angst-ridden revolutionary figure that we have become used to, he plays him more as a dissident, a thinking man who comments upon the Peron regime rather than challenging it. This is successful in as much as it seems to sit in context with the understated approach that is the trademark of this revival.

Mark Heenehan is an imposing Peron, both physically and vocally, and he is every inch the statesman. The relationship with Hope’s Eva, although believable and pleasing to watch, is a little short of sexual chemistry, though. Perhaps this is more of a result of direction than performance? Carly Bawden makes a sensational professional debut in the role of the Mistress. Grabbing her one great number, ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall’, with both hands and performing it with pathos and poignancy earned her a lengthy applause from an appreciative audience.

It isn’t just great performances that make this production the gem that it is, though. Bill Deamer’s choreography incorporates tangos and paso dobles , giving a truly Latin feel, whilst Mark Howlett’s lighting design provides many breath-taking effects, too. ‘Evita’ successfully stands the passage of time and this production is one that you simply must see.

Evita runs at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle until Saturday 4th July 2009.
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