Make no mistake about Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The man is certainly a marketing mogul of his musicals from the vast litany of his shows produced professionally in the West End and in North America. From my personal involvement in local community theatre, a Lloyd Webber show can usually be counted to raise funds for any not for profit group.
David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter wrote of the 2012 New York revival of ‘Evita’ that the musical is ‘arguably the best of Webber musicals and the least dated of his collaboration with Tim Rice as fresh electricity charges through the poperatic 1978 saga of Argentine First Lady Eva Peron.’ Personally, I side with Mr. Rooney. This musical has the power to move audiences genuinely, from its sweeping lush melodies and tightened Latin choreography right to where our hearts break when Argentina’s First Lady frailly speaks to her ‘descamisados’ while her body slowly breaks down from cervical cancer.
Scarborough Music Theatre, Producer Linda Ramsay and Director David Wicken have taken a risk in staging Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ‘Evita’. It demands to be grand in proportion and nature much like Eva Peron lived her short life to the same extent. In his Program Note, Mr. Wicken wanted to bring this highly political story which is blinded by love of one of Argentina’s most famous couples. As well, there is the love between Eva and the people of Argentina who revered her as a saint. From this preview performance, there were some bullseye hits and misses in meeting these three tasks.
The thrust stage at the Village Theatre offers an ample opportunity for actors to play to all sides of the house. Costume, lighting, make up and hair design all effectively capture the era of the 1940s. Look at some of the historical documents and props along the walls as they help to give further information about the historical 1940s-time frame.
Set Designer Heather Barnes and her team have beautifully recreated the façade of the Casa Rosada along with side staircases to aid in ease of movement from the balcony to the stage setting. However, there are moments throughout the performance where the action appears cramped. Yes, this closeness does work where the ‘has been’, cheesy singer Augustin Magaldi (nicely played by Mark Umphrey) takes Eva away from her family to the hectic, busy and often frenetic world of Buenos Aires; however, the exciting dance routine of the hard-working ensemble at this moment, finely staged by choreographer Kristie Woods, feels so boxed in that the audience cannot appreciate and admire this cast’s work in making it come alive.
Two ‘stop the traffic’ choreographed moments by Ms. Woods occur where the young Eva Peron (a promising performance by Samantha Bullard) ditches her escort at a charity concert and meets Juan Peron (one of the evening’s highlight performances by Dany Savard who understood the context of his onstage moments and listened to the meaning of the words in the songs). The tango these two perform, along with their silent looks of longing and desire during ‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You’ is sizzling hot to the point we know they will end up in a bedroom somewhere.
The second occurs with ‘And the Money Kept Rolling In’ where Eva establishes her Foundation while the Argentinian economy nearly ends in bankruptcy. The dancing is precisely taut where each member of the ensemble reaches out to the audience where we feel the excitement of the moment. We need to see and feel more of this excitement in this production.
Steven Lavoie’s musical direction is solid. Patti Lupone, Broadway’s original Eva Peron, was quoted in her autobiography that the score is difficult to sing, yet Mr. Lavoie and coordinator Judi Lytle have worked diligently with this orchestra and cast to heighten the dramatic musical impact. Thank goodness, the performers wear microphones as it is imperative that we hear every single word sung in this ‘popera’. There were a few sound feedback and balance problems, but I’m sure this glitch will be rectified at the next performance.
The challenge behind any sung through musical is the fact that all performers must be, as someone once told me, a ‘triple threat’ in performance, song and dance. Again, I re-iterate that ‘Evita’ is a challenge for any theatre group whether professional or non-professional. In this production, Chris Ning as Che, Samantha Ballard as Eva and Rebecca Field as The Mistress are more than competent singers for this music.
Nevertheless, what was sometimes missing from their performances was the passion behind understanding the context of the words. We simply had people singing nicely but not really conveying the emotional perception of the moment. At the top of the show we need to see intense weeping and confusion from the ensemble. By combining this with Che’s frustration and anger of the crowd’s behaviour at the spectacle of the funeral of their revered Mother Eva, the audience should be on every single word sung but the emotional magnitude wasn’t there. At the top of the second act, with the signature ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’, we see and occasionally feel the emotional intensity of the Argentinians who only want their blessed Eva to appear on the balcony of the Casa Rosada. Ms. Ballard sings the signature song quite well, but what’s missing is the fact the song is a classic manipulation of the crowd’s feelings. Ms. Ballard needs to consider some moments where we see evidence of this tactic.
Ms. Field, as the Mistress, sings ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ quite lovely, but again we don’t see and feel how this woman has probably survived abuse as a mistress, has put up with it, and will probably continue to put with being a mistress for other high-profile men for as Che tells her, “You’ll get by, you always have before.”
Two heartbreaking songs are handled adroitly and admirably near the musical’s conclusion. Ms. Ballard clearly understood the context of the ballad ‘You Must Love Me’ as I could see tears in her eyes. Here is a woman who is fearfully recognizing that cancer is slowly destroying her body and her life, and she shows it to us. The final image of the Lament with Eva lying in her coffin with a small child kneeling before the casket with Che looking on is haunting.
‘Evita’ continues performances at the Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Road Scarborough. Performance dates are November 9, 10, 11, 16 and 17 at 8 pm with 2 pm matinees November 5, 12 and 18. Some performances may be sold out so contact either 416-267-9292 or check the website.