Twenty eight years to the very day after its premiere on June 21, 1978, a new Evita has stormed the West End and created a new star in the tiny, bird-like, red-headed shape of Elena Rogers, an unknown Argentinian singer who slipped in and out of London unnoticed a couple of years back in a tango dance show.
She looks set to become as familiar a musical theatre fixture as the original Evitas on either side of the Atlantic, Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone, giving a whirlwind dance performance in some brilliant new choreography by Rob Ashford and displaying a voice of full range and maturity to encompass the demands of not only the signature anthem, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," but also the high-tempo, high-temperature travelogue songs, "Buenos Aires" and "Rainbow High."
Evita was the fourth and final collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (following the unperformed Dr. Barnardo musical, The Likes Of Us; Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; and Jesus Christ Superstar). There is a lot to support the claim that Evita is their best work together; it is certainly the one with most drive, vitality and sheer, untrammelled sexy joy in the composition.
Like Superstar, Evita existed first as a chart-topping double album, and Hal Prince's original production provided a black-box, Brechtian setting for the rough lines of the story, playing up the surprise axis of the narrator Che Guevara (the Judas Iscariot figure). Che comperes Evita's career as a singer from the sticks who rises to First Lady status on a wave of popularity before suffering a cruel and early death (she died aged 33, of cancer, in 1952) in a nationalist context of exploitation and betrayal.
Michael Grandage's thrilling revival proves that the music and lyrics are strong enough to survive a completely different interpretation-a more conventional one, perhaps, but one that is more Latin in every way, from the great colonial structure of Christopher Oram's design, dominated by the balcony of the Casa Rosada, to the silhouetted dancers and ladies in mantillas who decorate the action and then explode in the company numbers like an electrified conga eel, or a festive fandango.
Unlike David Essex or Mandy Patinkin (the original Che's), the fine young actor Matt Rawle does not sport a beret or any revolutionary insignia. More like Antonio Banderas in the 1996 Alan Parker movie, he emerges from the crowd, fading back into them, maintaining a quizzical fascination with his iconic subject.
Similarly, Philip Quast, as the mountainous Juan Peron, is a much more subtle piece of acting than we had from the first two British dictators (Joss Ackland and John Turner), and there are notable vignettes from Gary Milner as the night-club singer Magaldi ("On This Night Of A Thousand Stars") and Lorna Want as Peron's ejected mistress, beautifully intoning one of the show's best songs, "Another Suitcase In Another Hall," which Madonna pointlessly commandeered in the film.
A better moment in the film was the Oscar-winning song "You Must Love Me," the last item ever written (to date) by Rice and Lloyd Webber, which now works very well on stage, following the plangent waltz for Eva and Che and preceding the final political shakeout and broadcast. Lloyd Webber has re-orchestrated the score (with David Cullen ), creating a much more emphatic tango sound with strings and guitars, and the inspired musical direction is by Simon Lee, who d