Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
September 18, 2018

Forty years after Evita opened on the West End, legendary director Harold Prince has recreated his original production of what is now a classic musical for Opera Australia, with Australian singer-songwriter Tina Arena in the title role. The show, a rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, is the fifth collaboration between OA and producer John Frost – who in 2016 brought Dame Julie Andrews’ 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady to Australia – and the first time a Lloyd Webber musical has been staged at the Sydney Opera House.

Tina Arena in Evita. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Prince’s 1978 production is very much of its time, but it holds up – a gritty backdrop on which to play out the story of Eva Perón, the complex and controversial woman who rose from poverty to become the First Lady of Argentina in 1946, capturing the imagination of the Argentine people – and the world – before dying tragically young. The design by Timothy O’Brien (who worked on the original production) is all black and scaffolding, shot through with political posters and flags. A screen showing black and white photographs and footage of Argentina in the 40s, as well as images of Eva Perón herself, serves as the cinema in the opening scene when Evita’s death is announced.

The role of the tough, ambitious, Evita isn’t an easy sing, and it comes with baggage – anyone taking it on is walking in the footsteps of the likes of Elaine Page, Patti LuPone and Madonna (in the 1996 film with Antonio Banderas) – but Arena proves herself more than equal to the vocal demands. She doesn’t have the heavy belt of a LuPone, but she’s got a deliciously sultry low register (particularly in I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You, accompanied on stage by tango dancers) and she handles the lighter high notes with confidence, letting rip when it’s called for – her rallying oration in A New Argentina, buoyed by the chorus, is a rousing finale to the show’s first act.

Paulo Szot as Juan Perón. Photograph © Jeff Busby 

Acting-wise, there were moments in the first half when she appeared less than entirely comfortable on stage, but she comes into her own in the second act, with highlights including the show’s hit Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (in quite a broad rendition), as well as Rainbow High, Waltz for Eva and Che and You Must Love Me – which was written for Madonna in the film and inserted here, Arena alone onstage, ‘in concert’ style.

Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot, who was last in Sydney for Opera Australia’s Eugene Onegin in 2014, brings a magisterial baritone to Juan Perón. He’s a powerful vocal presence as the army general turned President, but brings genuine emotion to numbers like She is a Diamond and more intimate scenes.

London-based Australian musical theatre actor Kurt Kansley gives a stand-out performance as Che (Guevara), the cynical narrator, spitting his lines with bitter clarity as he binds the show together and delivers his none-too-flattering commentary on the more dubious aspects of Eva Perón’s service to the Descamisados (shirtless ones) of Argentina, billowing cigar smoke all the while. He brings electric energy to numbers like Oh What A Circus, and And The Money Kept Rolling In, softening for the more lyrical High Flying, Adored.

Tina Arena and Kurt Kansley. Photograph © Jeff Busby

In the show’s two smaller roles are two more Australians: Michael Falzon gives us a smooth-voiced On This Night of a Thousand Stars as Magaldi, the first rung on Eva’s social climb, while Alexis Van Maanen – making her professional principal debut – puts in a wonderful turn as Juan Perón’s Mistress, giving us a beautiful, clear-toned rendition of her single number Another Suitcase in Another Hall.

The chorus is in top form, both vocally and in Larry Fuller’s comic choreography (he was also on the original creative team) for the Argentine army, moving in formation, and the upper classes, in their own precise formation, with a uniform of top hats and monocles. The children’s chorus is a delight throughout, and particularly in the candle-lit Santa Evita. In fact, there’s plenty of great music in Evita and Musical Director Guy Simpson and the orchestra keep the energy tight, though there were times on opening night when the balance was just shy of optimal.

The cast of Evita. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The show ends on a sombre note, and if Evita’s final moments don’t quite hit home emotionally, her assumption of power is thrillingly done, Arena’s vocals capturing her commanding power and charisma. Prince’s production won seven Tony Awards when it hit Broadway after the West End, and it has become the basis for most subsequent productions of the musical. While some might be drawn to this show out of nostalgia, or for its historic value, there’s still plenty in it that speaks to today – and with some stunning, high flying vocals to boot, it makes for an entertaining night at the theatre.

Opera Australia and John Frost present Evita at Sydney Opera House, September 13 – November 3, and Arts Centre Melbourne, December 5 – 30