20 September 2014
The Dominion Theatre has been extensively and lovingly refurbished. It is quite beautiful in every way and manages to evoke the sense of Broadway's Palace Theatre which sits right opposite Times Square. Right now, for the princely sum of £67.50 you can score a stalls seat (non-Premium) there to catch the revival of Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's hit 1978 musical, which is now playing in a production helmed by Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright.
Do so at your own peril.
For my part, it is the worst production of a musical I have ever seen on a West End stage. It makes one pine for Too Close Too The Sun.
Imagine, if you can, that you are a small child reading your favourite book in your Grandmother's yard, the safest place you know. Suddenly, grenades go off everywhere around you, assaulting you with sound waves that grip the inside of your brain and scream from there to the tips of your toes with a ferocity that never abates and which could split mountains. At the same time, your Grandmother, someone you have loved and admired over the years, who you have watched morph from younger model to gracefully aged perfection, appears unlike you have ever seen her. Sharper, more brittle, with no finesses, no grace, no softness, unrelentingly bland, one-note and radiating atrocity. At the very same time, you feel like you are sinking in quicksand, you cannot properly breathe and when you do it is usually because you can't really speak and so exhaling is the only action of which you are capable. It is as if Hell has claimed you and will not let go.
If you can imagine that, you don't need to see this revival of Evita. Because that is the response it engenders.
This is musically inept at almost every level. The orchestrations are tinny and trite in this space; almost no one sings in tune or with line – there is just no sense of story-telling through music. Everything is forte, mostly triple forte. David Steadman is credited as the Musical Director – on the basis of this, he should be stripped of his baton immediately and sent to intone Gregorian chants on a small uninhibited island in Iceland. The sound design – Dan Samson – adds to the aural assault. The singers bellow and then are amplified to excess. It is grotesque and ghastly in equal measure.
Listening to this great score treated this way is simple torture. Waterboarding would be a walk in the park after this.
It is not until the Second Act, and the song Rainbow Tour, when there are finally male voices heard with colour, timbre, interest, line and clarity, where there is a real sense the singers understand the lyrics and are trying to convey the intent and feeling which underlie them. These two, Joel Elferink and Joe Maxwell, play the Cabinet Ministers; not lead roles. (To be scrupulously fair, Elferink had a solo line earlier which also displayed his skill). None of the leads are in their league, and it is quite difficult to understand why Elferink is not playing Che.
Because Marti Pellow is playing Che and there is nothing about his performance that is acceptable. He is constantly out-of-tune, sings with no power or style, and emphasises the “con” in laconic, the style he seems to think suits his one-off-note performance. Vocally, he groons – a kind of gurning crooning which is painful in every respect and which ensures the lyrics are never heard.
As Peron, Matthew Cammelle is a delightful block of wood. There is nothing wily, political, calculating or even alive about his portrayal. Yes, occasionally he booms out a great note, but Peron is a role that requires a gifted actor as well as a gifted singer.
Ben Forster has an impressive voice, but as Magaldi he is entirely one-note and his voice is put to X-Factor show-off mode rather than performance in musical theatre mode. So what might be great, is merely dull. With proper direction, he may well have been an impressive Magaldi.
Sarah McNicholas has a sweet voice, and easily provides the best moment of the evening with Another Suitcase In Another Hall. But best here is not that good. McNicholas seems entirely dislocated from the drama of the moment, the real feelings which underpin the song – it's another X-Factor moment.
Madalena Alberto is no actress and this defines her performance as Eva. She is not helped by the cod, passionless directorial approach. If you didn't know that Eva died of cervical cancer, you would after this production, such are the express and obtuse nods to that fate Alberto is made to signal. It's not just the over-acting, it's the inability to sparkle, to twinkle, to seduce, to charm. She thoroughly lacks the star quality which must be exuded by Eva in every way.
Alberto's voice is great at the top of her belt but that is really it; the bottom of her voice and the middle, where so much of the score here is set and which permits Eva to be multifaceted and entrancing, is just not strong enough and she seems incapable of soft or contrasting vocal colour. If you need to adopt a Rex Harrison approach to the tune in Rainbow High, you are in the wrong show. And when has there ever been a production of Evita where not a single person clapped at the end of Don't Cry For Me Argentina, even though it was set in a way which encouraged two applause points? Shrill carping does not an Evita make.
The ensemble work very hard and look good. They execute all of Bill Deamer's choreography with aplomb, even the sections which are idiotic. They can't be heard except as a blanket of sound, but that is more about direction and sound design than their skills. Diction seems of no interest to anyone in the directorial team.
While there is nothing original or particularly inventive about either set or costume design, Matthew Wright gets full marks for overseeing the aspects of the production which are the most professional. Mark Howett's lighting design is also excellent.
The direction and the concept underpinning this production defies belief. As a whole, you could be forgiven you are watching the work of primary school students directing and creating musical theatre in their second language. Che makes a reference to “gutter theatrical” at one point in Rainbow High and the overall feeling is that that phrase has been the reference point for both Tomson and Kenwright and their vision for this production. If it was, they have a bullseye.
Mind you, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation and were particularly vocal in their adoration for Forster and Pellow, and clearly enjoyed Alberto. But, equally, a significant number of people fled at interval. Those who knew nothing about Evita and those that did? Perhaps.
If, this morning, someone had asked me if any production of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical could ever make me long to be seeing Stephen Ward instead, I would have scoffed at the suggestion with dismissive scorn. This production of Evita showed me the error in my thinking.