Sowgandhika Krishnan reviews ‘Evita’ – a musical by Andrew Webber that shows Eva Peron’s journey from rags to riches.

Eva Peron is a controversial political figure and Andrew Webber is well known for his musicals. So a chance to watch ‘Evita’ – an Andrew Webber musical about Eva Peron’s rags to riches story – was something I wasn’t going to miss. Even if it was on a Sunday! I was looking forward to the musical’s most successful number – “Don’t cry for me Argentina” and, the portrayal of a controversial protagonist on stage, especially one who dies at the end of the story – would they deify her, create sympathy, or show her in a bad light?

Tim Rice and Andrew Webber began writing ‘Evita’ in 1974. They opened the first stage production in 1978 at London’s ‘The Prince Edward Theatre’. It ran for eight years with close to 3,000 performances and made Elaine Paige who played Eva Peron, a West End star overnight. It has had successful reruns thereafter – the latest being this year in the UK.

What’s striking about ‘Evita’ is the near absence of a “book”(the lines which are unsung and are just spoken/dialogues) in comparison with other musicals, and the minimal use of sets, unlike its London West End theatre counterparts. In fact, the first staging of Evita had no set! There was just a black box that the actors stepped on and off,  and used chairs. The current version uses pillars to represent the Church, two staircases – one to represent the staircase to Eva’s house, and the other to Juan Peron’s home. It also uses red carpeted air stairs that supposedly lead to a plane.

Photograph of Evita

The plot

Eva Peron’s story is about the young Eva Duarte who moves to Buenos Aires with Magaldi, a tango singer she is in love with. She quickly changes lovers, each of whom helps her move up the ladder of success. She meets Peron at the charity for earthquake victims and moves in with him. Her struggle to rally people in support of Peron when he is arrested makes her hold sway over public imagination. Once in power, she somehow changes and becomes way different from the very people she claims to represent. Her critics are dubiously silenced, she is accused of money laundering and keeping her people poor. Cancer, however, cuts short her Vice-Presidential ambitions and her life.

The main characters in the musical are Eva Peron, the female protagonist, and Juan Peron her husband, military general and President of Argentina. Then there is Che – the narrator.

The show

Tim Rice originally planned to tell Eva’s story from her hairdresser’s point of view; but realized that Che Guevara, a left-leaning critic of the government, also an Argentinian, lived around Eva’s time. Hence, he decided to have a character who looks and dresses like Che Guevara but is actually the voice of the people and has lived the poor life of the peasants.  Che plays the narrator, devil’s advocate and a severe critic of Eva. While Che questions her character and actions and lists out her misdeeds, it is Eva who defends her actions with much aplomb, making it a very interesting watch.

Photo of Evita

Words from the reviewer

‘Evita’ the musical starts with an announcement in a movie theatre about the death of Eva Peron followed by a public outpouring of grief and her coffin being wheeled in for prayer service. This part is brilliantly lit. The superbly composed “Requiem for Evita” that is sung here, creates a sombre feel only to be broken rudely by Che’s “Oh, what a circus”, which is a scathing attack on Eva and the public outpouring. This complete juxtaposition in the first five minutes tends to shake you up as a viewer and is an indicator of how the rest of the story plays out.

“Buenos Aires” where Eva speaks of her dreams in the new city, is an extremely well-choreographed dance number. One must mention the intelligent use of chairs, be it to denote a café where Eva tries to convince Magaldi to take her to Buenos Aires, or to depict Eva, Magaldi and other passengers in a bus on the way to Buenos Aires, or to represent a military power struggle between Peron and other military leaders using the game of musical chairs with every loser being taken away to their death.

Although the attention is understandably on Eva and Che, Peron’s former mistress who is dismissed by Eva manages to make a place for herself in public memory with the most soulful number in the entire musical, “Another suitcase in another hall” despite the tiny role.

The popular number “Don’t cry for me Argentina” is sung when Peron becomes President and the song lives up to its reputation. An entire number “Rainbow high” is dedicated to Eva’s ostentatious ways once she comes to power. The song uses full-length mirrors and shows stylists bringing in accessories. Eva’s look is changed right there on stage and done exceedingly well. “Rainbow Tour”  showcases Eva’s tour of Europe, is the best number in the entire musical. It is lively and foot-tapping and shows Eva using the airstairs to visit different countries, while Peron and his team read the reactions to Eva’s tour from newspapers and Che adds his negative comments about her failure.

The argument between Che and Eva beautifully highlights the shades of a woman who is way too sure of herself and can hold her own when under fire.  The tussle between Eva and Che is kept alive all through with one of them having the upper hand at different points of time.

Eva’s death is shown very subtly with her on a hospital bed. Hospital separators are brought in to conceal her last moments from the audience and then moved out to reveal her covered head to toe in a white sheet with a grieving Peron beside her. If there is any sympathy that could be evoked for Eva in her final moments, Webber and Rice take it away by starting with the news of her death and by keeping her last moments very subtle. They keep the musical fast-paced and bereft of emotion, except in a couple of places, preventing the viewer from getting swayed either side.

‘Evita’ takes a controversial personality and presents her story in a balanced manner. It lets YOU decide for yourself. You walk out feeling neither love nor hatred for the protagonist, but just a sense of having equally well-balanced views.

Evita played in Basel between 11- 16th July 2017. Catch it in London through the remaining summer and autumn holidays, or on a weekend. Watch the show at the Phoenix Theatre, London from 28th July to the 14th October.

(Photos depicting Evita through the years courtesy:

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