I'd always felt bereft at missing the original staging of Evita. Age-burnished memories of David Essex's superb version of "Oh, What a Circus", and a lasting impression of a charismatic Che Guevara with his wonderfully cynical smile, and a hatred of the current "Any Dream with Maria" telecasting obsession, left me underwhelmed at the prospect of seeing Seamus Cullen in the role. There is something desperate about a programme note that reads: "Best known for reaching the final 10 of the BBC's hit show Any Dream Will Do." Louise Dearman as Eva is also fighting against memories of the golden tones of Julie Covington and Elaine Paige.
Yet the opening setting of Eva's funeral has an immediate impact. The interchanging pillars, columns and arches conjure up the sombre, European feel of Buenos Aires. In the movement from the magnificent "Requiem for Evita" and the funeral scenes to Eva's youth, Dearman's age and physical appearance seem at odds with the idea of young Eva. You get the impression that dancing and movement aren't her strong points. More tango choreography could have been incorporated in "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" and "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You". But she can sing with reach and depth, and has an effortless ability to hit the high notes with a pure tone.
Cullen has an excellent voice. Initially, he looks like a boy in borrowed Che Guevara clothes, but his singing ability gradually pays off and the relationship between Che and Eva builds. James Waud makes a magnificently seedy Magaldi, while Mark Heenehan, in superb voice, at first comes across as a stiff Peron. However, this strengthen the image of a man out of his depth, bewildered and enthralled by Eva, and fearful of his political position. Nikki Mae as the mistress makes the most of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall", combining confusion, weakness and resignation. By the second act, Dearman's projection of a Boudicca-like Eva had won me over. The singing and acting make up for the static choreography.
Evita is the best musical Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have ever written, and this is a thoroughly able production that has some star turns. Dearman creates a fighting Eva who combines strength and vulnerability. Her vocal ability project both Eva the self-created legend and the driven Eva battling physical frailty and failure. It makes for a heartbreaking finale.
To Sat (08448 472 295); Hippodrome, Bristol (08448 472 325) 21 Jul to 2 Aug
Elaine Knox, health and safety adviser, Preston
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