tue 20/08/2019

Evita, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - a diva dictator for 2019 | reviews, news & interviews

Evita, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - a diva dictator for 2019

Evita, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - a diva dictator for 2019

Both literal and figurative fireworks in Jamie Lloyd's innovative musical revival

Moving on up: Eva Perón (Samantha Pauly) grabs her chance for advancementMarc Brenner

Following a triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ Superstar, now playing at the Barbican, the Park works its magic on another of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Seventies rock operas. Jamie Lloyd’s stripped-down, super-sleek, contemporary take excavates the biting satire of a work sometimes bogged down in period trappings and melodrama, and locates the furious spirit of Eva Perón – portrayed, with unusually convincing youth and fire, by the electrifying American actress Samantha Pauly.

Pauly, who starred in the Chicago production of Six, makes a memorable UK debut as the wife of the Argentinian dictator, who rises from humble origins to become First Lady and the people’s saint – and the pint-sized dynamo’s Eva definitely shares DNA with Six’s diva queens (both fractured through the lens of modern celebs). All calculated hip swivels, hair flips and palpable hunger, she’s riveting as the streetwise teenager longing for big-city adventure, while also harbouring a grudge against snobs like those who shunned her lower-class family at her father’s funeral. That original trauma burns through her, but also, handily, makes her immune to the slights and name-calling as she claws her way to the top.Evita, Regent's Park Open Air TheatreShe’s matched by Trent Saunders’ excellent Che (pictured above with Pauly), whose passion grows as the Perón regime stifles dissent. Their intimate chemistry makes this conscience figure more palatable, and his intensely physical performance is a striking contrast to Eva’s laser-like focus – until her body betrays her, and she joins him in torment. Ektor Rivera’s Perón is a handsome fake, as much of an image-conscious chancer as Eva. Once she’s no longer of use to him, he treats her with chilling callousness, making for a bleak, desperate finish (on press night, Lloyd somehow arranged for a dramatic fall of rain at this key moment). All three handle the score with aplomb – Pauly supplying powerful, vivid and wonderfully unforced vocals, Saunders a raw rocker vibe without sacrificing tone, and Rivera a honeyed sound that partly masks Perón’s intentions.

As the displaced mistress, Frances Mayli McCann brings stirring poignancy and a gorgeous clear voice to “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, plus a significant silent exchange with successor Eva. Adam Pearce provides both comic cheesiness and a hint of sleaze as tango singer Magaldi (his predatory behaviour rightly called out by a female quartet – a creative solution from Lloyd). And there’s a scene-stealing turn by the apparently angelic child used as a prop to whip up Saint Eva fever – I saw the marvellously self-assured Ellicia Simondwood.

A sensational ensemble (pictured below) fills in all the supporting roles, from worshipping crowds to competing politicians, generals and – amusingly – the judgemental toffs sipping tea as they bitch about social-climbing Eva. But it’s also a wonderfully expressive force throughout, whether heightening emotional beats or creating explosive set-pieces for “Buenos Aires” and “And The Money Kept Rolling In”, complete with superb formation work, rippling body rolls, crisp accents and daredevil lifts. Choreographer Fabian Aloise pops in some trad tango, but mainly this is original work with a modern flair. Crucially, the movement always serves the drama in Lloyd’s clinically precise production.Evita, Regent's Park Open Air TheatreSoutra Gilmour’s stark set is composed of concrete bleachers, used creatively throughout: in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You”, Eva and Perón inch their way towards one another from either end of a long row, negotiating a marriage along the way, while Perón’s political rise is illustrated by him getting a step further than his rivals. Costuming is liberated, with Eva in a simple white slip and trainers, rather than trapped in wig and ballgown, her Rainbow Tour represented by colourful streaks from spray cans. When Che swaps his Che Guevara T-shirt for an Eva one in forced allegience, it's shiver-inducing.

The unfussy set means that anything introduced carries significance – in particular, the balloons that, when burst, signal loss or death. Blood is represented by blue paint, creating a queasy link between spectacle and shocking violence. The emptiness also reflects the Peróns’ rule: there’s nothing substantial beneath the pretty words, at least not for the starving populace. This is a world of surfaces, and Eva makes an identity for herself and for her nation via, as Che notes, “stage management”. No wonder she and Che are always fighting for control of the microphone; whoever holds it controls the narrative, too. However, the repeated use of smoke and confetti feels like overkill, and Jon Clarks lighting – while ingenious – can distract.

On the whole, though, Lloyd makes effective, surprising choices throughout, serving Rice’s incisive lyrics and allowing us to hear Lloyd Webber’s indelible score afresh – the latter given a rich, articulate rendering by the onstage band under Alan Williams. Even the weary standard “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is presented in an interesting way, restlessly ambivalent about the extent to which Eva buys into her own celebrity and fake populism, and whether either can begin to satisfy her need for validation. That, of course, brings to mind Donald Trump, who apparently cited Evita as a favourite, and Lloyd’s production certainly confronts us with the grim consequences of government by ego and deceit. But, while never sentimental, it’s cautiously empathetic towards the scrappy, ambitious woman at the dark heart of this still provocative show.

@mkmswain

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