Culture editor Olivia Boyce reviews the stellar touring production of Evita, the classic musical about the extraordinary life of Eva ‘Evita’ Peron
The film reel spins to an abrupt halt, the cinemagoers outraged, until they hear a death announcement that shocks them into audible grief. This is not a real cinema, but one on the stage of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, and the death announced is that of Eva ‘Evita’ Peron, the charismatic first lady of Argentina who ‘passed into immortality’ at the age of 33 following a meteoric rise to fame. Thus begins Evita, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most beloved musicals, in a touring production that is nothing short of utter brilliance from start to finish.
This Bill Kenwright production has now been touring in a similar format for a few years, and it breathes welcome new life into a piece that was first performed in 1978. From the smoky haze of the cinema we glimpse through a translucent screen, to the Balcony of the Casa Rosada as a luminous Eva speaks to the people of Argentina, the staging is technically excellent and often captivating, moving from big dance numbers to a sombre introspective moment with ease. Bill Deamer’s choreography shines in numbers such as ‘Buenos Aires’ and ‘Peron’s Latest Flame’, combining the military and aristocratic with ease, and Lloyd Webber’s ambitious score is performed brilliantly by the orchestra and a fabulous ensemble cast, with the haunting ‘Requiem for Evita’ as spinetingling as it has ever been.
Recent tours of this production have been led brilliantly by the likes of Madalena Alberto and Emma Hatton, and here the title role of Eva Peron is performed by Lucy O’Byrne. O’Byrne, recently seen as Maria in the tour of The Sound of Music, is once again on top form. She captivates from the start, her stunning voice immediately apparent, and her Eva possesses a hint of emotional fragility which complicates Magaldi’s suggestion of her ‘cold and hungry’ ambition, so compelling is O’Byrne in the role. She sparkles too in the quieter moments, from her heartbreaking rendition of ‘You Must Love Me’ to her determined but reflective verse in ‘High Flying Adored’, culminating in a chilling and deeply moving ‘Lament’ which is surely amongst the greatest of all performances of the song. Of course, stunning too is the now iconic ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, and I’m sure there were more than a few tears amongst the audience as we were swept up in Eva’s triumphant address to ‘her people’.
O’Byrne is accompanied on stage by equally brilliant performances from Glenn Carter as Che, and Mike Sterling as Peron. Carter has graced Broadway stages in some of theatre’s most demanding roles, and he brings his impressive vocal chops and charisma here as the narratorial revolutionary, Che. With a look that nods to Che Guevara, Che acts as the voice of the people, slyly commenting on the unfolding events as he guides the audience through Eva’s life. He provides several of the night’s jaw-dropping vocal moments, and there is more than a little of David Essex about him, though Carter makes the role his own with ease. Sterling is a deeply emotional Peron, a forceful leader but a loving husband for whom the decline of his wife’s health is devastating. His effortless and soaring voice beautifully complements O’Byrne’s, and theirs is perhaps the most emotionally compelling of pairings the show has seen in recent years.
Perfectly cast is Oscar Balmaseda as Magaldi, the tango singer who unwittingly becomes a springboard for Eva’s success. He has the audience in the palm of his hand, perfect comedic timing lending a playful side to his excellent rendition of ‘On This Night of A Thousand Stars’. It is also impossible not to feel for Peron’s Mistress, replaced in Peron’s affections by Eva, and Christina Hoey gives a powerful performance of ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’, a hint at those displaced as Eva rises from poverty to first lady of Argentina.
And rise she does, in this production that delights in the extraordinary life that was that of Eva Peron. With outstanding performances all round, fabulous design and its morally complex heroine at its centre, Evita is a truly extraordinary piece of theatre, and one which is surely not to be missed.
Evita plays at the Coventry Belgrade until Saturday 29th of September, and afterwards continues on its tour. More information can be found here.