By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Willoughby Theatre Company. The Concourse Theatre, Chatswood. May 22 – 31, 2015

Willoughby Theatre Company’s lavish Evita is top notch community musical theatre, with outstanding production values complemented by strong casting and performances, tightly-drilled choreography, a professional orchestral sound from the pit and excellent technicals.

Like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s earlier Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita was first popularised as a successful concept recording. Its rock score, infused with Latin American musical influences, is a young Lloyd Webber at the top of his game, and its anthem ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ became a hit single long before it reached the stage.

Adapted and shaped for the stage by theatrical genius Harold Prince, a blockbuster Broadway and West End hit followed.

For the uninitiated, Evita tells the story of glamorous, charismatic Argentine first lady Eva Peron, cut down by cancer at the age of 33; alternately she’s seen as charitable, a powerful reformer and "Spiritual Leader of the Nation" or as opportunistic and manipulative, skimming funds from her own charity into a personal Swiss bank account.

Eva, as scripted by Tim Rice, is an anti-hero, hard to empathise with, until she’s simply a woman stricken with terminal cancer. Rice uses a sort of Brechtian framework with a narrator / Greek chorus figure, Che (also her antagonist, theatrical conspirator and chief critic), while framing the musical in flashback, as Eva’s death is mourned by an adorning nation.

Rice’s Eva reinforces Che’s criticisms, with Rob Hale’s highly convincing performance only serving to amplify and enforce that negative viewpoint for the Willoughby audience.

Struggling a bit to get into this review, I read extensively about the woman afterwards, trying to understand why Rice would write a musical about an apparent sociopath, and just kept discovering evidence for a more balanced, sympathetic portrayal. Has he done for Eva what many suggest Shakespeare did for Richard III?

All five principal performers are well cast. Virginia Natoli tackles the monumental challenges of the diva title role head on, singing the vocally treacherous score impressively, even in the midst of a quick on-stage costume change malfunction, while rarely leaving the stage through the dynamic journey from teenager to first lady. Jeremy Curtin has more than ample talent to nail the mediocre night-club singer and Latin lover Magaldi (you really do need to be good to play mediocrity convincingly). Clive Hobson’s Juan Peron is an appropriately stiff, enigmatic, un-emotive military figure. As Peron’s un-named mistress, Lucy Hood delivers capably on a great song and short moment in the spotlight.

The ensemble has a tremendous sense of focus and shared storytelling responsibility, establishing the world of the piece splendidly.

Relatively new to Sydney from Ireland, in his second production for Willoughby, director Declan Moore again proves himself theatrically savvy, imaginative, and able to impart a tremendous sense of focus and theatrical discipline to his entire company. This is a truly polished production. Not only is Amy Gough’s choreography appropriate and creative, it’s drilled to military precision, complete with attitude and characterisation. Greg Jones’ orchestra satisfies our expectations for these familiar arrangements, and the mix and balance of the show’s rock sound is excellent.

Willoughby’s Evita looks fabulous too. Set design by Peter Georgson, with scenic art by David Verdejo, based on director Declan Moore’s concept, is striking, sophisticated and highly functional in a slick, fluid production. The costuming, sourced and co-ordinated from a variety of sources, has an impressive sense of unity. Sean Clarke’s lighting design complements the production, and the director’s vision emphatically.

It’s hard to imagine a better representation of this rock opera on the Community Theatre stage.

Neil Litchfield

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