It now seems commonplace for entertainers to enter politics, but there was a time when this wasn’t so. In 1945, 26-year-old actress Eva Duarte married Colonel Juan Perón. In 1946, Perón was elected President of Argentina, and the actress became the first lady. Eva earned adoration and scorn and has had a lasting impact on popular culture.
Evita is arguably the best-known pop culture depiction of Eva. Practically everyone has heard “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” at some point or another. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice and directed by Hal Prince, the musical began life as a concept album in 1976, then debuted on the West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979.
The musical was adapted into a hit film in 1996, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The film was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Song for “You Must Love Me”.
It is 1934, and young Eva Duarte (Emma Kingston) convinces travelling tango singer Augustin Magaldi (Anton Luitingh) to take her to Buenos Aires. Excited at what the big city can offer, Eva quickly becomes a well-known radio personality and actress. At a charity concert in 1944, she meets Colonel Juan Perón (Robert Finlayson), and positions herself to fall in love with and marry the Colonel.
Perón is elected President of Argentina in 1946. When Perón is imprisoned by his political opponents, Eva rallies the people of Argentina around him, portraying herself as coming from the working class and thus understanding their needs and concerns. Eva becomes a glamorous style icon and the face of Argentina on the world stage. She is given the title of Spiritual Leader of the nation. However, she begins to weaken, and eventually dies of cancer at 33.
Our way into the story is the narrator Che (Jonathan Roxmouth), a one-man Greek chorus who functions as critic and observer, but mostly critic.
Evita is a controversial work because it depicts Eva as a grasping opportunist who slept her way to the top. The primary source material was apparently the biography The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main, which was unabashedly Anti-Peronist. Evita has a point of view and isn’t preoccupied with appearing even remotely objective. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s clear that its portrayal of events is largely superficial. This is a story that begs for over-the-top theatrics, but also for incisive nuance – the latter being in short supply.
Perhaps this is a limitation of the form of musical theatre, but the nitty-gritty of politics is challenging to present through song and dance. Then again, Hamilton famously acquitted itself well in this regard. Eva is depicted as a power-hungry social climber, and there is an emphasis on her expensive clothing — the number “Rainbow High” is all about Eva insisting she look her most glamorous for her European tour. Eva is depicted as being duplicitous – everything that made her beloved was all an act. “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, her impassioned plea to the adoring public, is a lie — she claims to have never “invited” fortune and fame, when that’s exactly what she’s done.
It feels like Eva was a more fascinating person than the show makes her out to be. There’s no question that she was ambitious and that she had and still has her detractors, but Evita downplays her contribution to feminism in Argentina as a staunch fighter for women’s suffrage. Eva pushed for a change in the law that was enacted in 1947: not only did this give women the right to vote, but also the right to be voted for and elected to office.
How does this fare as spectacle? Blockbuster Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals are typically associated with lavish, over-the-top scenery and effects: think crashing chandeliers and roller derby stunts. This staging of Evita is sparer and non-literal, using the original scenic design by Timothy O’Brien. The main piece of set is a balcony/walkway that moves up and downstage. Elsewhere, doors are represented by a door frame, and if a scene takes place in a bedroom, all we see on the stage is the bed. Archival footage plays on a large projection screen, giving the action a bit of context but not quite helping the audience’s immersion into the story. If one’s primary contact with the musical is through the 1996 movie, with its epic scope, lavish production value and thousands-strong crowds of extras, its best to remind oneself that the stage and screen are very different mediums.
Evita contains some of Lloyd Webber’s strongest melodies and scathing, witty lyrics from Rice. Lloyd Webber’s composing in the rock genre is not everyone’s cup of tea and has often been scoffed at by fans of rock music. The influence of Latin American music is naturally present, and the blending of styles might alienate some. However, as the musical is through-sung like an opera, each song flows into the next and motifs are repeated often. This reviewer’s favourite number is “High Flying Adored”, which sees the often-fiery Che at his most tender. Under the baton of musical director Louis Zurnamer, the orchestra brought the famous score to vivid life.
Lloyd Webber is known for writing scores that are downright punishing for performers, especially women. The vocal range demanded of Kingston is staggering and handles it all with confidence. There are moments when her voice seems to want for power, but this is such an exhausting show that it doesn’t quite seem fair to fault her. Her rendition of the aria “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is the show-stopper it should be. While this reviewer would’ve wanted to see things more from Eva’s perspective, that’s down to the writing and not Kingston’s performance. Especially when playing teenaged Eva, Kingston looks like she’s having fun. This is a daunting role, and she seems fearless in taking it on.
As intended, the show is well and truly stolen by Che. This incarnation of the narrator is patterned after Che Guevara, but the Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary never met Eva or Juan Perón. “Che” is slang for “mate” or “dude” – he’s the everyman who sees through Eva’s act and knows in his heart that while she professes to be a champion for the downtrodden, she’s mainly preoccupied with advancing her own status.
Roxmouth is an outstanding Che — he has a rich, mellifluous voice that is warm but suitably rough. Physicality is a big part of the role, since Che often mocks those in power by mimicking their mannerisms. Roxmouth imbues Che with a louche sexiness that is magnetic and commanding. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the dynamic between Che and Eva, which culminates in the tense, confrontational “Waltz for Eva and Che”, which is staged like a duel.
Finlayson doesn’t quite have the presence Perón should have, but then again, this is Eva’s show, and she is depicted as being the driving force behind his ascension to power. Finlayson comes off as a little stiff, and his Perón doesn’t have too much personality — again, this seems down to the writing more than his performance, but even so, he’s the weakest link among the three leads.
Luitingh, who is also the resident director of the performance, has fun as Magaldi. The performance is meant to be silly, but perhaps it is a little overly so. Magaldi is the first of many men Eva uses to advance herself, before he’s literally pushed offstage by Che. Isabella Jane, who plays Perón’s mistress whom Eva displaces, sings “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” with mournful beauty.
Evita’s songs have stood the test of time and the Latin-inspired dance sequences catch the eye. However, as a biography of Eva Perón, it does leave a fair bit to be desired. Perhaps it will motivate audiences to do further reading up on Eva. As a depiction of the collision of showbusiness and politics however, Evita is heady and entertaining, if not as substantial and thought-provoking as it would like to be.
Evita is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Peter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group. The show runs in Singapore from 23 February to 18 March 2018, and tickets begin at $55 (excluding $4 booking fee).
Photos by Christiaan Kotze and Pat Bromilow-Downing