Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical vision of the story of Eva Peron and her Argentina, in the capable hands of director Bill Kenwright, lifts itself out of its West End home to the New Theatre, Oxford, with elegance, style, and a surprising seriousness.
On 22nd January 1924, Eva Duarte met Juan Peron, former Argentinian dictator, and became his second wife. How delightfully apt, then, that a packed audience in rainy Oxford should be viewing, on stage, exactly 90 years later, the story of her life, from her humble roots in the country, through her radio and acting career in the big city of Buenos Aires, to her heady incline to wealth and power as the First Lady of Argentina, her controversial charity work, and eventual death. This musical combines the personal and the political, with more than a passing nod to power politics, corruption, class snobbery, social inequalities and extramarital liaisons. All as relevant in today’s world as in bygone eras.
Interestingly, the show began as a rock opera concept album in the 1970s. The songs ‘Oh What a Circus’ and ‘Peron’s Latest Flame’ reflect this. Also thrown into the mix are ballads, choral pieces and Latin(esque) songs like ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’ (I so wanted the guys on stage to actually play their instruments during this).
The cast were strong. Marti Pellow, of ‘Wet Wet Wet’ 90s fame, is back - as Che Guevara, of all people – playing both narrator and the nagging voice of dissent. There’s a certain clarity, almost sharpness, that stage singers need in order to be understood; although Pellow cuts a dashing Che, and gave a very smooth overall performance tonight, on occasions his naturally mellow, almost sibilant voice sounded a little muffled.
His was not the only one, though, and I did wonder whether it was simply related to the acoustic balance between the singers and the orchestra (who, conducted by the lively Matthew Loughran, with special mention to a particularly melodious guitar, were fab). Maybe it was just my ears. Either way, not a deal-breaker. If, like me, you will have known the lyrics by heart for years through school productions/ALW mix tapes/scores of previous staged versions/the Madonna movie (delete as appropriate), no issue. If you’re naïve to the plot, however, maybe consider a quick Google before you come. The programme is helpful in this respect, providing a digestible introduction to the people and politics of Peron’s Argentina.
Mark Heenehan made an excellent Juan Peron, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Evita herself (Madalena Alberto). Bearing an almost uncanny resemblance to the real life Eva Peron, she added a sympathetic and nuanced flavour to a character often portrayed only as grasping and power-hungry. Alberto’s voice is sublime; versatile and clear, it lilted to ALW's bossa novas as comfortably as it elicited silence during the show-stopper ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’. Well, silence, that is, until someone’s mobile phone rang. Don’t even get me started.
I fell in love with the sets and, ladies: the dresses are to die for! Apparently wigs and curling irons carpet the back rooms. The fact there is a ‘Wig Supervisor’ says it all. The costume changes were done magnificently and it was only while remarking on this with a lovely member of the New Theatre staff during the interval that I realised just how physically and mentally demanding it must be to do this professionally. Hats (wigs?) off to them all.
I can’t end without praising the lighting director. His work was pure genius. In my eyes it almost stole the show, leaving the stage radiating with a sepia glow, while subtle touches like the hanging bulbs and fairy lights were just wonderful.
With online tickets ranging from £12.90 to £45.90, which includes a booking fee, plus an online £4.00 transaction fee, the best seats don’t come cheap, but the New Theatre is a treasured venue, the musical itself is almost legendary, tonight’s performance deserved the standing ovation it got and – bonus - each successive performance is likely to get better until it finishes its Oxford run on Saturday. Who knows, it might be surprisingly good for you.