Sutton Coldfield Town Hall, Tuesday 26 March 2019
Oh What A Circus, Oh What A Show!
By Features Writer Jono Oates
Having seen the amazing Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at the imposing Sutton Coldfield Town Hall a few weeks ago I was back last night to see another of the winning horses from the Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice stable of seemingly endless trophy winning smash-hit musicals – this time Evita.
Evita is, however, an entirely different bread of musical horse – more Arabian stallion than free=flowing joyful filly. Whereas Joseph is full of catchy pop tunes and sing-a-long melodies with a feel good happy ending, Evita is darker, brooding, thought provoking, at times provocative and with a tragic finale.
Tudor Musical Comedy Society provide an accomplished, professional and measured performance of this very challenging musical and leave you walking away from the theatre deep in thought and very much aware of the high octane, roller-coaster, albeit short lived, life of Eva Peron.
The company performed their first musical in 1962 with No No Nanette, a Broadway musical comedy, and so they are well established and experienced which is just as well as I suspect that Evita would be too much of a handful for less experienced theatre companies. The Tudor use this experience and know-how to control and handle this stallion of a show and the result is extremely engaging and rewarding.
The plot of Evita is reasonably well known. It follows the story of Maria ‘Eva’ Duarte, a street urchin from a small village in rural Argentina, who eventually becomes a well-known actress and marries Juan Peron, a leading Colonel in the Argentinian Army. When Peron is elected as President of the country Eva becomes the First Lady of Argentina and is heavily involved in national politics, campaigning for the civil rights of the workers, the woman’s suffrage movement and the poor of the country. Eva, or Evita, died in 1952, aged just 33, from cervical cancer.
Like Joseph, Evita is sung throughout, with no spoken dialogue, so it is equally fast paced and as one song finishes another strikes up. Although an ensemble cast there are three main roles – the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevarra, who acts as the narrator who guides us through Eva’s troubled lifetime (though they never actually met in real life), Colonel and later President Juan Peron and Eva herself.
The songs are a cluster of different styles and contrasts, from sweet ballads to rock anthems with lead guitar, from Argentine tango to military brass band. The songs are sometimes quite abrasive, jangly and jarring and at times quite hard to empathise with – but this is a very clever method used by Lloyd-Webber to indicate the troubled and complicated relationships of the lead characters and to represent the turmoil of Argentina at the time.
There are however some sublime, mellow gems of songs among the more offbeat. In the mid-1970s Top of the Pops was a must see programme every Thursday night (I’m older than I look!) and, when the stage show of Evita was first launched, they showed a flurry of hits from the musical, which no doubt boosted its success, and the show last night brought back many happy memories.
Pete Beck, as the narrator Che, performed Oh What A Circus, sung by David Essex on TOTP and he has a wonderful tenor voice, supplying the links of the story in a very authorative and convincing manner. Kim Waldron, playing the unnamed ‘Mistress’ of Juan Peron, and rival to Evita, sang the hauntingly beautiful Another Suitcase in Another Hall, a song full of sadness and bitter regret and performed originally by Barbara Dickson. It is the only significant contribution from the character, who literally moves from sitting on a chaise-longue to standing up thirty seconds later, singing this evocative lament, before moving off stage and disappearing into the shadows. This is clearly a very difficult challenge, there is no ‘warm-up’ it is stand-up-and-go and Kim achieved this very easily and without any fuss, beautifully sung, very touching and a stand-out moment.
The most iconic song from the musical is, of course, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, which was performed on ‘The Pops’ by Julie Covington (although she flatly refused to perform it in person!) and is a simply stunning song, with a gorgeous melody and wonderful lyrics, I simply love:
All through my wild days, my mad existence
I kept my promise
Don’t keep your distance
Vickie Beck is an extremely talented singer and actress, her rendition of this classic song was truly lovely, as she stood on the raised platform at the rear of the stage, she looked radiant and it was another magical moment. Vickie shows strength, weakness, joy, love, bitterness and jealousy in her performance, a very moving and powerful portrayal.
Strong support is provided by the commanding and imposing Alistair Joliffe as President Juan Peron, with a very strong vocal performance. There is a lovely scene when Eva is close to death and he shows the tender side of his character as well as the strength and power of a nation’s leader. Tudor debutant Matt Collins, as the lounge-lizard nightclub singer Magaldi, was good fun and provided some lighter relief in what is otherwise a dark backdrop.
The ensemble are also very strong, if you read my reviews regularly you will know that I love the ‘everyone onstage’ moments and I especially liked the moments when the younger performers were involved, getting lifted up onto the shoulders of their fellow performers and punching their young fists in the air, lovely and engaging moments.
Choreography by Jemma Tiso was energetic and the ‘group standing on a bus holding onto the (invisible) grab handles’ scene was clever. It’s also good to see the orchestra at work, especially with the string sections, and musical director David Easto did a fine job of handling a difficult score and in what is a beautiful, but cavernous, theatre.
Full marks to Faye Easto for grabbing the reins of this bucking bronco of a production and keeping it on track and sprinting past the finishing post. Widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult productions to put on, Faye brings out some fabulous performances from her cast and helps us to understand more about the troubled, and tangled, life of Eva Peron. The fact that the cast received a long, and deserved, ovation at the end of the show spoke volumes.
Finally, I’d like to mention the very touching and heartfelt tribute in the programme notes to one of the founding members of the Tudor company, Doreen Marlow (popularly known as Auntie Doreen) who passed away last April. Talking about the show the notes said, of Doreen: ‘This One’s For You’. I did not meet her but I am sure she would have agreed that last night’s performance was outstanding and that she would have been proud of everyone involved.
Evita is, at times, quite a hard watch but is well worth it – very involving, fascinating, illuminating, intriguing, different, edgy and truly, truly emotional. As I walked away from the theatre it made me realise just how stunning it was for a young street girl, from the slums, whose natural father was a bigamist who abandoned his family for another one, to rise and become one of the most powerful, and well known, people in the world – and yet she died at the tender age of 33.
Evita is an amazing watch – tickets for the rest of the run are very limited and I’d recommend that you go and see it while you can, it will not leave you dancing in the streets with joy but will definitely leave you feeling very entertained and thoughtful.
Evita by the Tudor Musical Comedy Society is on at the Sutton Coldfield Town Hall until Saturday 30 March. Performances start at 7.30pm with a matinee at 2.30pm on Saturday. Tickets start at £12 and can be booked online at: www.townhallsuttoncoldfield.co.uk or ring 0121 296 9543 for more information.
* Photograph copyright David Gough Photography