Originally premiering as a concept album in 1976 Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita hit London's West End in 1978 making a star of Elaine Paige before arriving on Broadway with Patti LuPone in the title role. Evita (which means "Little Eva") portrays the rags to riches real life story of Eva Duarte who rose from poverty to become first lady of Argentina, alongside president Juan Perón, before reaching near-sainthood in the eyes of her beloved descamisados ('the shirtless ones') whilst simultaneously evoking the hatred of the upper-classes.
Evita continues as the pinnacle of the union of Rice and Lloyd Webber with an exciting, melodic score by Lloyd Webber and some of Rice's best lyrical work. Bill Kenwright's current touring version utilises the reworked material developed for the 2006 West End revival and continues to prove how iconic and powerful the musical is.
It's a bit unfortunate that Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright's direction is uneven with clumsy and melodramatic staging sitting alongside more poetic, economic renderings withsome of the best ideas originating in Hal Prince's original staging or Michael Grandage's revival but the stuff that works here works brilliantly, almost effortlessly. Bill Deamer's choreography is witty one moment and understated the next and one yearns for more of it whilst the design serves the production perfectly well. The sound balance needs more work in the first act where some stage business overpowers the vocals - unfortunate in a musical where every lyric needs to be heard.
Another occasional downside is the musical director's knack of reducing the tempo of some numbers rendering them intermittently flaccid. And yet, at other times, the musical direction explodes with energy, as in "A New Argentina". Perhaps the most unfortunate victim is the musical's most iconic number, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina", here bizarrely staged before a crowd of oligarchs rather than Eva's natural audience, the workers, whilst the song itself is conducted at a slower pace than usual, further troubled by the choice to pause before each chorus interrupting the dramatic impetus constructed by Lloyd Webber.
Yet this production remains a solid, engaging, exciting piece of theatre and is fortunate in its cast who tend to rise above any creative flaws: Cristina Hoey has only one number to sing as the teenage mistress of Perón but she more than makes her mark with a striking rendition of "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" which is the emotional highlight of the first act. Jeremy Secomb brings a strong presence and vocal to the role of "Juan Perón" even if he is ill-served by mundane direction. Gian Marco Schiaretti's "Ché" is a striking narrator-figure with a voice evoking memories of the movie version's Antonio Banderas though he is also left adrift at times by the direction.Madalena Alberto is a powerful figure with a powerful voice in the eponymous role but she is perhaps too refined at the start of the show to be entirely convincing as the earthy teenage "Eva" of small-town Junin, but when she shines she radiates and never more so than in her heart-breaking performance of "You Must Love Me" and the stunningly staged and sung "Lament", perhaps the strongest, and simplest, moment in the entire production.
This may be a bit of an uneven presentation of Evita but forty years on the material remains powerful enough to move and thrill its audience as one of the most triumphant works of musical theatre.