A Vancouver Opera production. At The Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday, May 1. Continues May 5 to 8
Can you judge an Evita by its fabled balcony scene alone? Probably not, but it's the moment that holds the most expectation—not just for its famous showstopping number "Don't Cry for Me Argentina", but for its Broadway-scale glamour and emotion.
Happily, on this front, Vancouver Opera's rendition of the hit musical delivers. When Argentine president Juan Perón steps aside at the beginning of the second act, the Presidential Palace's shutter-style doors seem to be blown open by the sheer fabulousness of Eva Perón—Caroline Bowman, radiant in the iconic, sequined white ball gown, and belting her ballad out as she emerges. There's big feeling, but also the necessary duality here—the slight suggestion of a manipulator justifying her jewels and designer clothes to the poor.
The fact is, no matter how you feel about Perón's ambitious wife, her rags-to-riches story, or even the thought of a revived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, that song will sink its talons into you and stick with you for days. Written by Webber and Tim Rice in the 1970s, post-Jesus Christ Superstar, the work still has strong tunes, driven as often by catchy tango rhythms as rock 'n' roll attitude.
Evita isn't the deepest exploration of politics, history, or the cult of personality you may ever see, but that's allowable. What it can't be is flat (as we all saw in a certain film version in the 1990s). Thankfully, this production captures all of the title character's colourful contradictions. Iranian-Canadian West End star Ramin Karimloo provides a bitingly sardonic narrator in Che, constantly reminding Eva of her hypocrisy ("little has changed for us peasants down here on the ground"). And Bowman feistily captures Eva's conflicting personalities (which Rice famously called "a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint").
Watch her turn her back on her poor date and flash a 1,000-watt smile when she meets Juan Perón at a party, the way she inhales and steels herself before shooing away his mistress, or the way she erupts in rage when British royalty have the audacity to meet her anywhere other than Buckingham Palace. Her singing scales the different demands of the role too, from the rangy, rawer numbers of the first act to the crystal clarity of "Lament", as Evita faces early death from cancer at just 33.
Die-hard opera audiences can revel in the stunning tenor of John Cudia, a former Broadway Phantom who's equally adept at Verdi, making a regal and mellifluous President Perón. The opera chorus, too, shows the musical depth of the score, making the repeating "Peron" chants of the second act truly hypnotic.
The production is not as perfectly flawless as its heroine's blond chignons and white silk suits. There are a few places, particularly in the first act, during Eva's arrival in busy "B.A., Buenos Aires, Big Apple" at just 15, where the score feels a bit rushed—though elsewhere, the big numbers feel unhurried. And the set's steel scaffolding and hanging spotlights sometimes look more Squamish Valley Music Festival than colonial Buenos Aires—although the multiple projection screens produce some smashing effects, memorably multiplying archival black-and-white shots of Evita's adoring crowds across the stage's many levels.
And who is Evita amid all this—heroine, feminist, socialist, gold digger, master propagandist, political pawn? Sixty-five years or so after her death, and almost 40 years after Lloyd Webber's musical first hit the stage, you'll probably feel more conflicted than ever. But it speaks to her, and the show's, lasting power that you'll go home pondering her legacy—not to mention, of course, humming "Don't Cry for Me Argentina".