Although Che Guevara holds the audience’s hand, bellowing his way through Eva Peron’s story with all the subtlety of a proverbial blunt instrument, it is still surprisingly difficult to work out what is going on for those who have not seen Evita before; most of Tim Rice’s exposition-heavy words get lost in washes of reverb and tinny, booming mulch.
Speaking of blunt instruments, the orchestra hits the opening hard with the strident chords of Eva’s requiem. But Lloyd Webber’s music, suffering from the fact it was written in the 70s, never settles. It sails through styles, which the cast and orchestra handle with ease – from epic movie soundtrack themes, complete with proto-Zimmer brass blares, to Latin(ish) stylings. Lloyd Webber keeps insisting on ornamenting everything with cheesy electric guitar riffs and, bizarrely, xylophone so that what starts as a solemn requiem mass turns into rock opera, via vaguely South American dance music. It’s a jarring, intriguing contrast between the sacred and the profane – between the solemnity with which the dead, already apotheosed Evita is treated, compared to her younger, ambitious and lascivious self.
The music has, of course, been analysed many times. In this production, a half-hoarse Marti Pellow as Che has a slow, grumbling vibrato that stops short of the top notes, Matthew Cammelle’s Juan Peron is assured and occasionally tender, but it’s Madalena Alberto who is the strongest performer as she chirrups her way through the numbers, hitting every consonant hard. Her voice gravitates towards high notes, but only lingers on them when absolutely necessary. Occasionally shrill, she settles into melodic runs with ease and marks Evita’s progression from poor actress to statesman’s wife with conviction and a yellow wig that looks like smooth Lego hair.
Director and producer Bill Kenwright focuses on scale: everything is big, really big, from the mise en abyme of proscenium arches, framing everything with palladian grandeur, to the rows of Doric pillars that fly up and down every thirty seconds to allow the behemoth balcony set to move in and out. The large cast is completely unfazed by complex dance scenes – their unity and precision is remarkable. Other directorial choices are uninspired: neon signs tell us we are in a seedy club, ‘Eva’ and ‘Peron’ emblazoned on placards tell us we are at a rally.
Lloyd Webber’s score has dated and his music often sounds more like the demo function on a Casio keyboard than anything fresh or exciting. So it is easy not to be moved by this big, functional production. It has the sense of scale that suits the cavernous, refurbished Dominion Theatre, it has the glitz and glamour in Madalena Alberto’s Eva and it has a good cast and crew behind it, but all of this combines to create a curiously unmoving experience.