SWEET SEDUCTION, OLD CORRUPTION
In 1978 as a Today reporter the day editor hustled me off to the Prince Edward theatre where this chap Lloyd-Webber (“He did that Joseph thing, and the Jesus one”) was to open a show about Eva Peron (“some 1940s dictator’s moll”). I remember little about the tea-break interview, but as the rehearsal resumed, an immense dramatic voice thrilled through the stalls. “Who’s that?” “She’s called Elaine Paige” said the composer proudly. And so she was, and the rest is history.
Now EVITA is back up West again, honed by a national tour and a reminder of how very good Andrew Lloyd-Webber already was, even before Phantom and Cats. It’s operatic, sung-through, musically urgent , dramatically tight, and studded with tunes so wonderful that they have stuck in our heads ever since. A reminder too of what a lyricist Tim Rice has been in his prime: not a word out of place. Those of us whose romantic disasters of the ‘70s were accompanied by endless mournful singing of “Another suitcase in another hall” are patsies for it.
Having said that, the show’s an oddity. It prefigures the stubborn determination of the Lloyd-Webber who plunged recklessly into celebration of Stephen Ward and the Profumo scandal. There is certainly romance in the tale of Eva Duarte, the low-born actress who slept, wheedled, performed and battled through to be the wife of Argentina’s leader Peron and a national “saint” despite the cruelties and corruptions of their regime. But as a heroine any “dictator’s moll” is problematical, at times downright repellent; nor do many popular musicals attempt to make a big Act 2 number out of an international diplomatic mission by a leader’s wife. But hey, it’s all about the music, and that is still tremendous.
This production is co-directed by Bob Tomson and producer Bill Kenwright himself, with a new star, Maddalena Alberto. She is beyond fabulous: a voice like honey and rosewater which can rise to an acid scream, become breathy or belting, wild or caressing, always under perfect control. Can act, too: whether as the firecracker teen forcing her cabaret-hack boyfriend to take her to Buenos Aires, the ruthless discarder of lovers (flinging their suitcases and pants at them over the banisters), or the artful seducer of Peron (“I would be good for you”). Whether as steely power bitch salting away money, or returning to idealism on her early deathbed, she convinces all the way.
Actually, once the last hysteria about another divisive figure has died down and someone dares write it, this mistress of both breathy charm and ferocious blast-furnace numbers must absolutely star in “Thatcher The Musical: from Grantham To Glory”. You could even recycle Rice’s great lyric as the cream of Argentine society scorns her: “The shooting-sticks of the upper class/ Aren’t supporting a single arse / That would rise for the girl”. It is pleasing to think that the wincing ladies and snobbish generals here (beautifully choreographed) predate the 1979 Thatcher win by just one year. And then you can ironize all you like about the Falklands war…
Thus for all the vigour and tunefulness of the music, it proved impossible not to entertain wandering historic thoughts. I actually felt an (even less fair) pre-echo of another blonde people’s princess when Alberto stands in her glittering yet virginally white ballgown pledging her love of the common people in “`Don’t cry for me”.
The narrator – Marti Pellow of Wet Wet Wet as Che Guevara – is a bit of a problem, though his fans cheered him to the echo: the lyrics of the part need a drier, more cynical throwaway style than his over-amped, pop-starry delivery. At the start it really grates, especially next to the lovely honeyed tones of Ben Forster’s Magaldi and Matthew Cammelle’s booming bass Peron. By the second act, though, it works better. But our eyes and ears are generally on Maddalena Alberto…
box office 0845 200 7982 http://www.dominiontheatre.com to 1 Nov