London theater critics heaped praise Thursday on a tango-tinged revival of "Evita," the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical about Argentine icon Eva Peron, and celebrated its Buenos Aires-born star, Elena Roger.
Many consider the show, first staged in 1978, the strongest work written by Lloyd Webber and his lyricist collaborator Tim Rice. Its centerpiece song, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," is certainly one of the most memorable.
The role of Evita, who rose from poverty to become Argentina's first lady as wife of dictator Juan Peron before dying of cancer at 33, has proved the making of several divas, including original star Elaine Paige and Broadway Evita Patti LuPone. Madonna starred in a 1996 screen version of the musical.
For the show's first West End production in two decades, British director Michael Grandage has cast Roger —a star in her homeland but unfamiliar to English-speaking audiences— in the central role.
It seems to have paid off.
The Times' Benedict Nightingale said Roger was "a revelation," while The Independent's Paul Taylor declared her "simply sensational." The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer was won over by Roger's "socking great star performance."
Roger, Taylor said, "has a wide, voracious mouth and a clarion voice capable of thrilling shrillness and of a pensive purity that's just on the point of curdling." Nightingale felt Roger's vocal power was "at times so jarring that I thought my ears were being attacked with an electric screwdriver." But he reckoned that was a plus -"then again, wasn't that Evita?"
Nightingale and others praised the infusion of tango rhythms into the show's arrangements and in Rob Ashford's sensuous choreography.
The Guardian's Michael Billington had qualms about the show, however, and rated Roger's performance a "modest triumph." He said "there is no real attempt to explore Eva's inner life and only a token gesture toward the economic mayhem caused by Peron's political tyranny."
Almost three decades after its premiere, many critics remained troubled by the show's ambivalent attitude to its heroine —was she a quasi-fascist demagogue or a champion of the people? Some were reassured by the astringent presence of Matt Rawle as Che, the show's skeptical narrator.
"The show is a demonstration of the way blatant populist politics work," the Telegraph's Spencer wrote. "The audience gets suckered, too."
"Evita" is at the Adelphi Theatre in London.
By Jill Lawless