Fine production, but not the best

A scene from Evita, which tours to Cape Town, Tokyo and Sydney after its Johannesburg season ends on November 26.

STAGE: Evita – Teatro, Montecasino, Johannesburg

ANDREW Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita has been my favourite musical from the hit team since I bought the double vinyl album, and played it to death, on the strength of the Julie Covington hit single, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

As they had done before with their Jesus Christ Superstar, Lloyd Webber and Rice released Evita as a rock-opera concept album in 1976.

The album came two years before the first London stage production took the Olivier Award for Best Musical – and three years before the Broadway production became the first British show to take the Tony Award for best musical. The show, globally, has gone on to rake in some 20 awards.

The early release of the album and subsequent hit singles – Covington’s dramatic hit, David Essex’s version of Oh, What a Circus and Barbara Dickson’s rendition of Another Suitcase in Another Hall – ensured the show had ignited interest before it hit the boards.

My interest saw me choosing to fly to Pretoria for an overnight stay in 1981, to see the show’s first South African production at the State Theatre. That Pact production saw Jo-Ann Pezarro and Sharon Lynne in the title role, the cast including Alvon Collison (Magaldi), Ge Korsten (Juan Person) and Kim Kallie (Peron’s mistress).

Jonathan Roxmouth as Che in Evita.

I loved it, but it was the production in 1995 at Durban’s Playhouse that excited me more.

Then-Durban-based Brenda Radloff (now Brenda Sakellirides, based in Johannesburg) beautifully filled the lead role of Eva Peron, the actress who found her way into the arms of Argentinian leader Juan Peron and who, by her death of cervical cancer in 1952, at the age of 33, had been labelled as a saint by the Argentinian people.

News of the new production was exciting – the show having been created to tour to Tokyo and Sydney after the current Johannesburg season (ending on November 26 at the large Teatro at Montecasino) and performances in Cape Town (December 1 to January 7, at the Artscape Opera).

Harold Prince’s original Broadway and West End staging of the show has been recreated for the new, 40th anniversary international tour. Prince reunited with Evita’s original Tony-nominated choreographer Larry Fuller on the production, which also replicates the Tony-nominated scenic and costume designs by Timothy O’Brien and Tazeena Firth.

Someone I respect in theatre considered the new production to be a little dated, but I didn’t feel that way at all. By the same token, I would disagree with a reviewer who has labelled Evita the show of the year. Come on… where were you when West Side Story, easily the best musical I have seen nationally all year, hit Joburg?

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new Evita, presented with a full orchestra.

Emma Kingston as Eva and Robert Finlayson as Juan Peron in Evita.

Of most note is the unfailingly charismatic Jonathan Roxmouth, who handles with aplomb a demanding vocal range.

Sporting a beard and longer hair, and with an occasional puff on a cigar, amusing gesture or dance step, he constantly catches the eye and ear as sneering, jeering Che Guevara, who prowls the stage serving sarcasm and wit with bitter commentary.

Evita, for the uninitiated, charts the story of Eva Peron, wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron, from modest beginnings to great wealth, power and status – which ultimately led her to being heralded as the ‘spiritual leader of the nation’ by the Argentine people. Che is the musical’s watchdog and commentator during Eva’s rise, fall and funeral.

London-based Emma Kingston (In the Heights, Les Misérables) appears as Eva Peron and, while I enjoyed her performance, I expected a little more from someone who was reportedly personally chosen by Lloyd Webber, Rice and Prince to play Eva.

On the night I attended, Kingston – who sometimes, on stage, bares a physical resemble to Lady Gaga (or is it just me?) – was initially a little nasal, sometimes a bit strident. However, her voice and presence grew on me, and she became increasingly impressive in the second half.

Emma Kingston as Eva Peron in Evita.

Her highpoints include the poignant You Must Love Me (yes, the Madonna hit written for the 1996 film version has been added to the show); the deftly choreographed Waltz for Eva and Che; and, of course, the iconic balcony scene (Don’t Cry For Me Argentina), in which she appears, arms outstretched, in a white, puff ballgown.

The stage is dominated by a giant screen in a scaffolding-like frame, where black and white film footage of the real Perons and others is shown.

This screen, flanked by reflective vertical panels, has a raised platform in front of it. It overlooks a stage where floor lighting plays an important role, most effectively in a sequence where Eva starts to acknowledge her illness, and finds her light dimming, literally and figuratively speaking, with every step she takes.

Also of note in this production are Anton Luitingh, who is a hoot as camp, chest-baring lounge singer Magaldi, one of the power-hungry Eva’s earliest conquests; and Robert Finlayson as Juan Person, who paves the way for Eva’s “rainbow high”.

Emma Kingston and Isabella Jane in Evita.

A particularly bright star among the glittering ensemble – which includes Mark Richardson, Mike Huff, Earl Gregory and Kiruna-Lind Devar (Brenda Sakelliride’s daughter) – is young Isabella Jane.

She is in wonderful voice for Another Suitcase in Another Hall, as Peron’s mistress, who is booted out of his bed by Eva on her climb to fame. Remember the name… huge potential there.

Was this Evita worth the drive from Durban to Johannesburg, as well as the cost of  petrol, toll fees and overnight accommodation? For this fan, a definite yes.

But I still rank the 1995 Playhouse production, directed by David Matheson and choreographed by Alfred Hinkel, as my favourite to date. It also starred Paul Warwick Griffen as Che, Dewet Van Rooyen as Juan Peron, Thokozani Mkhize as Mistress and Arnie Field as Magaldi.

Performances of Evita at the Teatro theatre, Johannesburg, are at 8pm Tuesdays to Fridays, 3pm and 8pm on Saturdays, and 2pm and 5.30pm on Sundays. Ticket prices range from R150 to R500.

The performances at Artscape Opera in Cape Town will be at the same times.Ticket prices there range from R100 to R485. Booking is now open at Computicket outlets.

Anton Luitingh as camp lounge singer Magaldi in Evita.

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