Review: Evita by Christchurch Theatre Club at Loughborough Town Hall

five star

Historically, the sung through musical Evita, by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, has suffered from not always flattering reviews. This comes as a surprise nowadays  but when it originally opened in London in 1978 reviews were mixed: Bernard Lewin in The Times called it ‘an odious artefact … that calls itself an opera’. The critic for the Guardian was more praiseworthy in naming the new musical ‘audacious and fascinating’. Audiences loved it however and it ran for an incredible eight years culminating in 3,176 performances. To its credit Evita also won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical. Actress Elaine Paige became synonymous with the title role even though singer Julie Covington had a number one ‘concept album’ hit single with the show stopper ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ in October 1976.

On September 25th 1979 the show opened in New York at the Broadway Theatre. Even with the supposed safety net of the long run in the UK it received a critical mauling from some of the critics. The fairly hostile reception and accusations of Lloyd Webber and Rice ‘glorifying the fascist Peróns’ actually didn’t do a great deal of harm to the show. Once again, the audiences totally disagreed with any negativity throughout what proved to be an highly successful run of 1,568 performances on Broadway. On Broadway Evita was the first British musical to receive a Tony Award for Best Musical.

Evita has gone on to become a huge box office success throughout the world not only for its staged version but also for the box office smash of a film starring Madonna as Eva Duarte Perón and Antonio Banderas as Ché Guevara with British actors Jonathan Pryce as Juan Perón and Jimmy Nail crooning badly as Agustin Magaldi . The additional song in the film ‘You Must Love Me’ won an Oscar in 1997.

More recently in 2014 the show had a major revival through a national tour and fifty-five West End performances at the Dominion Theatre with Magdalena Alberto in title role.

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For the first time ever, Evita is showing at the Loughborough Town Hall this week. Shepshed based Christchurch Theatre Club have yet another veritable hit on their hands with their top class adult amateur production of Evita. Their recent adult amateur production of Cats was a critical hit and sold out show. Director John R Lewin’s classy and startling Evita looks certain to copy that success. Evita is John R Lewin’s 100th show for Christchurch Theatre Club and is a directorial gem.

… a directorial gem

Lucy Maden totally convinces in the acting and singing stakes as she takes her spirited character Maria Eva Duarte from ambitious fifteen year old would-be actress to a clawing woman determined to rise to the very top of Argentine society whatever it takes. Even as she reaches the age of thirty-three and terminal illness from cancer takes hold it appears that she will live on as a saint in the adoring minds of her devoted followers. Maden’s many songs are delivered with great passion and some not inconsiderable sensitivity in the finale. Her ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ gets a hugely deserved round of applause. Maden gives the iconic role an authenticity of her own creation and is very impressive in her stage realisation and vocal command.

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Playing opposite Maden is tenor James Nelson as Ché. In a commanding and verbally sarcastic performance Nelson is electric. As we hear his opening song ‘O What A Circus’ we feel in safe his musical theatre hands. At other times we hear Ché‘s sardonically sung observations powerfully wrought in Maden’s depiction. With an occasional glimpse of grudging admiration his Ché witnesses Eva’s attempts to prove her class ridden society and, the hated middle classes, wrong. Additional material has been written for his part as a political agitator and the declarative text works well within the musical context.

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One of the most famous songs in Evita is the bitter sweet ‘Another Suitcase – Another Hall’ delivered by The Mistress (Laura Barker) and Eva Duarte. Barker has a clear and expressive voice and she also contributes to the chorus throughout the show.

David Burton brings great baritone presence to his role as Colonel Juan Domingo Perón and despite their corrupt political games we get a real sense of loving between Burton’s Perón and Maden’s Eva in this production.

To act and sing well in a stage musical takes a lot of talent and training and therefore to play a character who is really nothing but a poor jobbing club singer with an inflated ego takes some doing. Agustin Magaldi (James Highton) is such a role and Highton nails his warbling faux sexy tones perfectly in ‘On This Night Of A Thousand Stars’ and ‘Eva Beware Of The City’.

With a well drilled and beautifully choreographed (choreographer Michelle Gadsby) cast of over twenty performers the Christchurch Theatre Club move deliciously to the musical director (Vicki Ling) and her seventeen strong orchestra’s dynamically luxurious sound. The Latino suffused score of Evita never sounded so good especially in this acoustically perfect venue. The fast moving swelteringly hot ‘Buenos Aires’ is particularly well done by the company as is the rousing socio-political anthem ‘A New Argentina’.

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“A New Argentina!”

The set is a stripped back two tone series of balconies with some simple set pieces in terms of furniture. Various hanging lights suggest the military base and the opulence of the Perón’s wealthy existence. The four glittering chandeliers that are lowered for ‘A Waltz For Eva And Che’ are incredibly effective in helping to suggest an empty ballroom. Set design for Evita is by John R Lewin with the atmospheric lighting design created by lighting designer Robert Bridges. The show uses projection and archive film to great effect bringing a faded feel of ghostly reality to the story of Evita.

The overall impact of Christchurch Theatre Club’s production is one of sheer professionalism from all quarters; the acting, the dance, the high quality singing, the amazing costumes (X3 Costumier), the choral work and the properties. This first night performance is astounding and well deserving of the standing ovation and endless applause it received.

Reviewer: Phil Lowe

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