Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s bold, brash 1978 ‘rock opera’ Evita is the ultimate star-making vehicle.
The triple-threat performer playing Eva Duarte de Peron has to sing and dance up a storm and be sensual, tough and vulnerable to embody this contentious woman, who continues to be adored and loathed in equal measure in Argentina. Those to inhabit the title role have included Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone and Elena Roger.
Entirely different to Roger’s raw country girl in Michael Grandage’s 2006 production and bearing a strong resemblance to Eva Longoria as Gabrielle Solis in the TV series Desperate Housewives, the honey-voiced Samantha Pauly is an Evita for the social media age: very modern, thoroughly calculating and scarily precocious.
She might be from the trashy side of the tracks, but she knows all the tricks required to turn herself into a new kind of celebrity, hated by the bourgeoisie and aristocracy but very much here to stay.
Pauly gives a performance of considerable bravery – she isn’t afraid to be thoroughly unsympathetic – and her bold renditions of numbers such as Buenos Aires and A New Argentina are performed with an utmost, single-minded confidence that never softens.
The grandeur of the late Hal Prince’s original staging gives way here to something more instinctive, but no less flamboyant, in Jamie Lloyd’s pulsating open-air revival with its fireworks and extravagant confetti showers. Soutra Gilmour’s stark, stripped-back design with concrete bleachers and distressed ‘EVITA’ signage is suggestive of a down-at-heel rock concert.
Despite demanding the glamour treatment, Eva spends most of the show exposed in a white slip and plimsolls. The iconic moment in which the darling of the working classes, decked out in Dior and diamonds, addresses her loyal subjects is performed in underwear: the empress has no clothes because she has no sincerity.
Trent Saunders is terrific as Che, the brutalised smart-arse with hair and soulful eyes that have adorned a million student bedrooms. As Juan Peron, Ektor Rivera is much younger than the usual world-weary, older man and enjoys an enticing chemistry with Pauly’s Eva. Meanwhile, the populist rallies, the silencing of journalists and unashamed nepotism of the story feel closer to home than they did even a decade ago.
Fabian Aloise’s choreography is filled with chaotic energy and showcases a diverse ensemble; the lighting is full-on and sometimes overpowers the performers, and the orchestra plays with all the required vigour as befits the invariably lush musical offerings at the Open Air Theatre.
We have recently seen a string of revivals of decades-old Andrew Lloyd Webber shows – including Regent’s Park’s own staging of Jesus Christ Superstar; Lloyd’s approach to Evita showcases just how astringent the musical is.
Perhaps the time has passed for an ambivalent depiction of Eva Peron, the antithesis of a diva with a heart of gold, and this is a revival that reflects the divided times in which we are living.