‘Evita’ dances tango

Grandage boosts tuner's Latin flavor

If proof were needed that theater folk are superstitious, consider the June 21 West End opening date for London’s upcoming “Evita,” at the Adelphi Theater. It’s exactly 28 years to the day since the opening night of Hal Prince’s iconic premiere production. But if Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are hoping for lightning to strike twice — the original ran eight years in London alone — they’re going about it in an unusually adventurous manner.

Three years ago, just as director Michael Grandage’s career was going into orbit thanks to his stewardship of the Donmar Warehouse and his much-feted production of Schiller’s “Don Carlos” at Sheffield’s Crucible Theater, Really Useful Group chief executive Andre Ptaszynski approached him about re-imagining “Evita.” Grandage immediately discussed the project with his regular designer, Christopher Oram, and then met with Lloyd Webber.

“I was a particular fan of Michael’s ‘Don Carlos,’ and I thought I’d love to work with this man,” Lloyd Webber tells Variety. “We met, I liked him and his approach a great deal. He had ideas about a different way to do it.”

Aside from writing new song “You Must Love Me” for Alan Parker’s movie version (retained for this revival), Lloyd Webber was “not very involved with the film at all.” He welcomed Grandage’s invitation for him to revisit one of his strongest scores with a new Latin-flavored orchestral sound to complement Grandage and Oram’s ideas for the production.

The explosion of world music in the West means we know and hear Argentinian culture completely differently. “At the time I wrote it, nobody in this country knew much about Latin American music and, specifically, the tango,” says Lloyd Webber. “I certainly didn’t know that much about those sorts of orchestrations.”

Having received so strong a mandate for a brand-new production, Grandage and Oram looked at the entire piece from a 21st-century perspective. “We wanted to take the show to all the places that weren’t available to the original production team,” explains the director.

Back in the ’70s, Argentina was not as accessible as it is today. Everything has changed, not least the fact that, since the original production, Britain has been to war with Argentina over the Falkland Isles.

“However complicated, we now have a relationship with the country,” Grandage says. “And there’s a great deal more that will be in the subconscious minds of people coming to it now. The death of Princess Diana reflects, albeit in a minor way, the mammoth death of Eva.”

Grandage and Oram immediately brought on board lighting designer Paule Constable (Olivier Award winner for “Don Carlos”) and choreographer Rob Ashford. The word each uses to describe their physical approach to the material is “architectural.”

Oram explains: “It’s about creating an architectural landscape for the piece that’s multilocational, but with the flavor of something unexpected. People imagine Argentinian architecture to look something like, maybe, Mexico, but it’s modeled on European ideas. Photographs of Buenos Aires look like Paris. It’s monumental, rigid, aristocratic, everything Eva aspires to in her act-one journey and reaches at the top of act two with her climactic appearance on the balcony of the Casa Rosada.”

He sums up the collective approach as being naturalistic but not doggedly literal.

The other principle everyone on the team adheres to is narrative. Ashford, who fell in love with Argentina when he restaged “Kiss of the Spider Woman” there, is very precise about how dance is used in this show. “We haven’t pulled it out of proportion to invent tons of dance,” he says. “But Argentina is about the only country in the world which has dance, the tango, as one of its most immediate associations, so we’ve made the tango vocabulary the basic movement within the whole show.”

The aim is to make the transitions in and out of dance appear seamless. So rather than moving the set for dance, Oram has built his unit set around an open, terracotta-tiled floor to allow Ashford’s three major dance episodes to be an integral part of the storytelling logic. And the numbers are far from being dance displays from specialists: The entire company is required to dance, a factor that put serious pressure on the casting.

While the production’s Juan Peron, Philip Quast, has three Olivier awards for musicals on his shelf, its Eva appears more of a gamble. Although this marks her European debut, Elena Roger comes with one distinct advantage: authenticity. She’s from Argentina.

As both Lloyd Webber and Grandage observe, everyone else they saw in the U.K. and the U.S. sounded like a case of either Elaine Paige (creator of the role onstage) meets the movie’s Madonna or Broadway’s Patti LuPone. Roger, who had never seen the show, sounded like a young Argentinian woman who became a star.

All of which has allowed Lloyd Webber to see the tuner in a completely different light.

“In a way, maybe the music shines more than it did originally,” he offers. “It’s terribly hard for me to say. But it’s really very exciting to watch an audience being captured by Elena and standing up at the end and going ballistic.”

So how has Grandage refined his approach during previews? “At the first dress (rehearsal), I asked Andrew and Andre if, in their opinion, anything didn’t work at all and needed to be rethought from scratch. The answer that came back was very firmly ‘no.’ ”

Grandage is seriously impressed by Lloyd Webber and Rice’s open-mindedness. “They’ve absolutely stuck to their word that we should reinvent. That’s almost shocking when you consider that it’s one of their biggest successes. You’d think they’d be nervous of saying, ‘Go on then, change it,’ wouldn’t you?”

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