Evita, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bombastic musical about onetime Argentinean First Lady Eva Perón, is politically opaque, and equally disgusted and entranced by its subject.
It’s a story about a controversial woman written by and told, almost exclusively, from the point of view of men; her actions are interpreted through the male gaze, and it is a punishing one.
If you were looking for words to slut-shame someone – though I’m sure you never would be – you could find all the synonyms you need in Evita’s script.
The musical positions Eva as a woman who seduced a nation to get to the top, and our narrator Che tells us from the beginning that his mission is to prove that, although Eva was beloved, she “did nothing for years.”
We’re supposed to admire her and abhor her but are not encouraged to root for her, which sets her apart from most musical theatre protagonists.
But mostly, Evita is all about using the political machine for personal gain. Should we be surprised that this is a musical that irony-resistant Donald Trump has seen six times?
Despite its confused history, casual invective, and lofty, arms-length staging, Evita is a modern classic, widely beloved for its innovation and ambition, with some moments – Don’t Cry for Me Argentina chief among them – that have helped to define and shape the contemporary musical theatre canon. (And also gay culture; the showtune’s dance remix is still in high rotation at queer-friendly nightclubs like Sydney’s Imperial Hotel, where you’ll hear it most Saturday nights).
The show has played all over the world (except Argentina, where it has been banned) and adapted into a film starring Madonna (hilariously, it’s listed on Google Play under ‘documentary’).
The 1980 Australian production, starring Jennifer Murphy and later Patti Lupone, who originated the role on Broadway, remains the stuff of Australian musical theatre fan legend.
It was the first British musical to ever receive the Tony Award for Best Musical, and now that same 1978 production, again helmed by Broadway director and producer Hal Prince, has arrived at the Sydney Opera House.
It’s another preserved-in-amber production like Julie Andrews’ re-mount of the original My Fair Lady in 2016; if you come to see this show, you’re agreeing to step into a time machine and head back to the 1970s.
And if you’ve seen the show before, you have a serious advantage. This production lacks essential clarity onstage to draw the eye and help shape the narrative, and the sound design, which is more critical than ever in a sung-through rock opera, can be murky: necessary, plot-shaping lyrics are frequently lost. (Tip: before you go, read a plot synopsis).
Here, Australian music icon Tina Arena stars as Eva Perón, and she’s committed herself completely to the role; over the course of opening night her acting choices become more settled and nuanced, and she has an innate stage presence that means we can’t help but understand why so many people are drawn to her.
But the best thing about Arena in this role is her voice. Her tone is caramel-rich and rangy; it’s a pleasure to listen to her take on this notoriously difficult score, hitting every note that has eluded other leading ladies (and certainly Madonna) over the years.
Tony Award winner and opera star Paulo Szot plays the suave Juan Perón with necessary slickness; he’s a good partner for Arena’s Eva, and they’re well-matched in their shared scenes and duets.
Alexis Van Maanen, who plays Juan Perón’s Mistress, is a recent high school graduate making her theatrical debut. She already has a lovely, Broadway-ready ingénue tone.
Her solo number, Another Suitcase in Another Hall, is one of the few moments the show is able to slow down, focus in on its story, and give weight to the telling of it. Her voice rings out with genuine emotion and it’s a welcome, refreshing change of pace.
Prowling the stage with an appealing swagger and well-deployed sneer as narrator Che is the talented Kurt Kansley. He’s built for rock opera, and handles well the role of the young revolutionary, who instigates the entire musical as a means to speak truth to power and expose Eva’s machinations.
He’s the conscience of the piece and stands frequently above the action, but when he does join the ensemble in the thick of the story, like in the protests that drive A New Argentina, he – and the show – finds new narrative sense and momentum.
While later productions have walked back Che’s look, here he’s restored to the spitting image of Argentine-born Che Guevara, which opens up a whole range of political, historical questions about the musical on top of its existing, conflicting, ideological takes, but the musical itself doesn’t make room for and cannot answer those questions.
The biggest moment of real theatrical power in this production comes exactly when you might expect.
When Arena sings Don’t Cry for me Argentina, the audience on opening night became collectively still, leaning forward to listen, hanging off every word just like the Argentine crowd onstage, gathered and enraptured below Eva’s balcony.
It’s a song that sells false sentiment as genuine connection, and for a moment, we all bought into it.