Friday, March 13, 2015

Evita - Canberra Philo

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Jim McMullen
On until 21 March

Review by John Lombard

At one point in Canberra Philo's production of Evita Argentine military leader and Mussolini enthusiast Juan Peron (Tony Falla) secures control of the army by ousting his competitors in the game of politics - "the art of the possible". Here the backstabbing and manuveuring of politics is imagined as a game of musical chairs with the loser exiled from the stage. At the end of the game, Peron graciously offers the final chair to another officer - only to yank the chair out and claim it as his own.

Canberra Philo's new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular musical (director Jim McMullen with choreography by Shasha Chen and Eliza Shephard) is defined by these moments of creative verve. Unavoidably, the demanding score means that the focus in casting has been on singing power (Kelly Roberts as Evita demonstrates an amazing range), with acting and singing not as polished. However the directing and choreography compensates for these weaknesses admirably, with clever flourishes like the high stakes game of musical chairs giving the performers actions that are simple but engaging.

Evita is the story of the rise to power of Eva Peron, a model and (bad) actress who sleeps her way to becoming the spirital leader of Argentina. It's a bizarre story and makes an amazing musical. It's really the story of a fascist coup in Argentina, with Evita the ambitious and charismatic orator who keeps her dictator husband in power. Kelly Roberts' Evita is serious, hyper-ambitious, and diamond hard. Her stony expression in "and the money kept rolling in" suggested that she was intentionally fleecing the poor of Argentina even as she played the role of saviour - a cynical intepretation of the character.

Counter-point to Eva is Che (Grant Pegg), an everyman who represents growing frustration with authoritatian and slightly kooky Peron rule. Che is Evita's constant critic, and his savage attacks on her are highlights of the show. Pegg plays the role with outrage and grief, but no true menace. He is mourning what is happening to Argentina rather than aiming to kill the Queen. In contrast Falla's Peron is doting and loveable, the likeable romantic lead who has a sideline in destroying democracy in Argentina. Peron is such a strange character he almost calls for his own musical - bizarrely, he frequently talks about giving it all up and going on permament exile-holiday with his beloved wife, only for his first lady to sternly keep him on-task. The most heart-breaking moment of the show comes from Peron's constancy: a dying Evita asks Peron "Why are you at my side? How can I be any use to you now?" The woman revered as a saint by most of Argentina can't see the love that is closest to her.

Unfortunately, opening night was hampered by severe sound glitches. The volume of the music often masked what the actors were singing, and at other times it was not possible to hear them at all because the microphones were not switched on. "Peron's Latest Flame" was a distaster with the sound tech apparently unaware who was singing when - the start of each switch of scene left the sound struggling to catch up. The problems cleared up after interval, but the muddy sound quality of the first half left a poor impression of the show, especially on opening night. Rather than blazing on, the show should have been stopped and restarted.

Nonetheless this was an engaging musical, in no small part because the subject matter is fascinating. Philo has always had strong singing, and it has been raising the quality of its acting and choreography. Unfortunately, the performance I saw was heavily limited by technical problems: this is an excellent musical struggling with a speech impediment.