EVITA Tina Arena and Kurt Kansley - photo by Jeff BusbyBased on the events surrounding the rise to power of Eva Peron, EVITA is a sung-through musical documenting the rise to the Presidency of Argentina of her husband, Juan Peron, because of a revolution organized by Eva.

Beginning and ending with Eva’s funeral, it touches on her activities as the spiritual leader, (Santa Evita), the First Lady and Labour Chief of Argentina as seen through the eyes of the character, Che, based on the real life revolutionary, Che Guevara.

Having seen Patti Lupone perform the role of Eva Peron in the original Australian production, and other versions, both amateur and professional, the opportunity provided by Opera Australia’s excellent new production to refresh recollections of Hal Prince’s original staging was both enticing and enlightening.

Even forty years on, Prince’s dark Brechtian staging remains impressive, particularly his method of telling the story through the striking use of scaffolding, film and fluid, tightly focused ensemble movement. This technique has been adapted and incorporated into many contemporary musicals. Jersey Boys, currently on show in Sydney, immediately comes to mind.

Boasting one of Lloyd Webber’s best scores, in which almost every song is an earworm, and to which Rice’s biting, satirical lyrics are perfectly matched, the show makes huge demands on all the cast, but particularly its leading lady, who leaves the stage only to change costumes.

As Eva Peron, Tina Arena gives a star performance, wisely bringing her own interpretation to the role, but not as yet fully claiming it. At this second night performance, her character still appeared more motivated by the direction than by her own responses to the events surrounding her.

Her singing voice is lustrous, comfortable through the full range, whether cooing seductively in I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You, or powering through the complexities of Rainbow High. You could hear a pin drop during her carefully phrased, spell-binding account of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

However, as lovely as her voice is, her articulation lacks the laser sharp clarity necessary to drive the all-important lyrics up the theatre. This was particularly noticeable in the eleven o’clock number, You Must Love Me. Not in the original production but clumsily interpolated here, this song was written for the Madonna movie.

Fine for the film but not so fine for the stage, because, even though it is beautifully sung by Arena, this song is written for the lower vocal register, making it difficult to discern the lyrics which in any case seemed to be repeating the sentiments expressed in Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and therefore superfluous and oddly out of style.

Kurt Kansley, who plays the narrator, Che, also shared this problem. He interprets the character as unrelentingly cynical. It’s an arresting performance, but very two-dimensional, lacking even a fleeting hint of  admiration for Evita’s success which may have rescued it from becoming ultimately tiresome.

More importantly, as his character is linking the storyline it’s vital that the audience hear his every word, despite his strong singing, many important lyrics were lost under the richness of the Guy Simpson’s magnificent 29 piece orchestra.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this production is Paulo Szot as Peron. Brazilian baritone, Szot, won a Tony Award for his Broadway performances as Emile De Becque in the Bartlett Scher version of South Pacific, the role played by Teddy Tahoe Rhodes when Opera Australia presented this production in Australia. Szot has appeared previously for Opera Australia (Eugene Onegin, 2014) and his commanding presence and warm resonant baritone imbues the role with thrilling gravitas.

Michael Falzon brings loads of charisma to his underwritten role as the smarmy tango singer, Magaldi, oozing his way through On this Night of A Thousand Stars, while newcomer, Alexis Van Maanen, in her professional debut, as the young mistress unceremoniously ousted by Eva, adds lustre to the evening with a superb account of her only song, Another Suitcase In Another Hall.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Wednesday 19 September 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 3 November 2018
Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com

State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Season: 5 December 2018 – 27 January 2019
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.evitathemusical.com.au for details.

Image: Tina Arena (Eva Peron) and Kurt Kansley (Che) in EVITA – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Bill Stephens OAM