As Sandy Wilson said in his 1953 musical “The Boy Friend,” “Some people’s one desire is to go to Buenos Aires.” That’s certainly the case with the heroine of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita.” About 15 minutes into Michael Grandage’s pulse-racing revival, the gloweringly lit, cracked plaster back wall flies out as Lloyd Webber’s infectious fast samba “Buenos Aires” kicks in. Gone is Eva’s peasant past; she’s living for the future in the city of her dreams, thrillingly embodied by the entire company dancing as if their lives depended upon it. Such electrifying energy needs a source, and it’s got it in triple-threat dynamo Elena Roger as Eva.
“What’s new?” is her exultant, open-throated cry. Throwing herself joyously from partner to partner on Christopher Oram’s monumental three-sided, balconied set, eyes flashing in determination, this isn’t a question, it’s a fearless challenge. What’s new about the explosive number is that when she sings, “Put me down for a lifetime of success,” not a soul in the auditorium is likely to disagree. It’s also blindingly clear that Grandage’s entire production team knows it. Yet they have the courage to ensure the show is not a star vehicle but a serious theatrical event.
The line between showmanship and shamelessness is dangerously thin. Most productions are so desperate to persuade auds they’re having a good time that a button is put on every possible number; this one takes them out. There now are only three moments in this show where auds can applaud. This not only makes those climaxes truly deserving of roars of approval, it also means the story is forever being driven onward. In a sung-through musical with no book, that’s crucial.
The resultant fluidity is the production’s secret weapon. Applause stops the action, but feeding the energy of one scene ceaselessly into the next galvanizes Eva’s trajectory and the growing political fervor. “Evita” wants to be an opera, but it’s actually closer to an oratorio, in which scenes are set up and sung about rather than dramatized. Instead of plot, a narrator, Che (the marvelously relaxed, sardonic Matt Rawle) links scenes on a chronological journey through the life of the hick from the Latin American sticks whose naked ambition takes her to the top.
At first look, the rise to becoming a fascist dictator’s wife wearing Christian Dior while the country starved looks like the classic rags-to-bitches story. Yet the strength of the show’s conception is its intriguing ambivalence about her character, a juggling act that is the forefront of this revival.
The politics are never back-pedaled. Indeed, one of the simplest but biggest risks this production takes is in the “And the Money Kept Rolling In” number, in which wads of banknotes are distributed to the poor. Eva, however, isn’t presented as some Robin Hood character. She spends the number looking radiant, not with concern, but at the brilliance of her own achievement. The effect is chilling, all the more so because the dancing around her is so invigorating.
Choreographer Rob Ashford, Lloyd Webber and dance arranger David Chase have reconceived the score, the composer’s most inventive, as Latin American, not just in rhythmic changes but in the whole tone. The show now has sounds of the accordion, of soft guitars and shimmering harp effects; the tango takes over as the musical motor.
Out goes the literal-mindedness that flattened the sober movie version; in comes imagination. The approach papers over cracks in the storytelling and provides more direct access to engaging, often contradictory emotions. Telling the story through dance frees up the possibility to present ideas in multiple ways at any given moment.
In “The Art of the Possible,” the generals wittily use the tango as a lethal, formal tussle of power as they stalk each other and fight to get to the top. Halfway through “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” the number slows to a seriously smoldering tango in which Eva and Peron’s teasing and threatening of each other is physically echoed by other pairs of dancers snaking themselves about. In that number, Philip Quast’s full-voiced, mightily powerful Peron looks as if he could wolf down Roger’s petite body as a quick snack. Yet seeing someone so tiny tame a man that big makes Eva seem even more dangerous.
Hal Prince’s original production’s most iconic moment was the staging of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” on the balcony at the Casa Rosada. Here, caught in Paule Constable’s crossing of white searchlights above the crowd, Roger repeats the famous gestures of hands symmetrically aloft, but she makes the moment her own. “And as for fortune and as for fame” has a tigerishness in place of the expected “who me?” sweetness. She makes the line beat with controlled rage before bringing everything right down for the reprise, to highly moving effect.
In the final section, dying Eva is spun around on a hospital bed. Cleverly clustered choreography disguises her exit. Two people then lift the pillow, which unfolds into the political flag and is draped over the bed as the cast process past it like a body lying in state. Yet above them, Eva appears on the balcony again, looking down, beaming. She’s engrossingly enigmatic to the last, but one thing’s certain: She and Grandage’s seamless production are going to dominate this stage and the West End musical for a seriously long time.