Review: Evita (Lower Ossington Theatre)

Toronto’s Lower Ossington Theatre brings Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic Evita to the stage

Evita (playing the Lower Ossington Theatre) has always wobbled slightly. From the very beginning, opponents have criticized it for misrepresenting the life of its subject, presenting her as an aggressive — and heavily corrupt — political operator: an opportunist, an embezzler, an apologist for fascism, and a woman who relied upon “the parts in between her thighs” to make her way in life, all of which have been brought into question by subsequent research. After she’d left the show, having scored her first Tony award, Patti LuPone dished that playing Evita was “the worst experience of my life […] a part that could only have been written by a man who hates women”.

The LOT does not embrace these criticisms: their production is straight and faithful, with very few moments of ambiguity or self-reflection. And while the show’s fun to watch — the songs include some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best — the way that director Heather Braaten approached the story reminded me of a student reading a book report of a novel he didn’t particularly enjoy. The plot points are mentioned; the songs are in the right places; but this felt like a recitation, rather than a retelling from someone who’d actually engaged with the material.

One of the cool things about Evita is how small it can be. If you don’t have the time or budget to do a cast-of-40 Broadway-style production, you can scale it right down: replace the 21-member pit orchestra with a pianist and accordionist; replace the big choreographed numbers with intimate Argentine tango; replace the 40-member cast with 5 principals and 4-6 actors taking up multiple roles. The LOT is a teeny tiny wee shoebox of a theatre, and I thought this was the direction they were headed. I was wrong.

They’ve gone for a big set, but it’s built cheaply, sits unused for most of the show, and mostly exists so people can climb up and down stairs. While it preserves the iconic Casa Rosada balcony, I found myself wondering if they could have done without it, especially as the cumbersome two-level design leaves the company a primary dance floor scarcely larger than a postage stamp.

They’ve gone for a big cast — 15 people, 20 if you include the band — and they use the full company in virtually every scene, but this crowds the stage and pulls emphasis away from the principals, particularly during the hyperkinetic dance numbers.

And that choreography may be one of the major weaknesses. The dancing is sophisticated and challenging, and the company keeps on top of it very well (not as easy as it sounds!), but it struck me as under-rehearsed (on several occasions, dancers seemed genuinely surprised that they’d actually pulled off a maneuver) and out of proportion with the rest of the show: there’s just too much happening here, and so much of the movement amounts to a distraction from the story.

Luckily, the principals are good. Victoria Scully, as Evita, has a smoky voice which flatters the LOT’s intimacy and requires a new — but successful — approach to the show’s more operatic numbers. Mischa Aravena (Juan Peron) and Christopher Benjamin (Che, narrator and interlocutor) support her beautifully, singing two of Lloyd Webber’s less-forgiving roles. Andria Crabbe’s solo as Peron’s former mistress shows her chops as a singer and performer, and Francesc Esteve, as the slightly-seemy tango singer Augustin Magaldi, does his one song justice.

The chorus, too, can sing: their upper-class accents show off some beautiful harmonies, and the latinate liturgy which opens and closes the show is absolutely soaring. But these are the primary victims of the under-rehearsal I alluded to, and I found myself wondering how well they might have done if they’d just had more time to polish and perfect.

On the whole, this show felt like they’d sacrificed certain things (company costumes, lighting, character arcs) in support of other projects (impressive choreography, the balcony, Evita’s wardrobe), and that these trades — from where I’d been sitting — were not entirely favourable. I would have preferred to see a more polished, less big-n-in-your-face production. But if you just want to see Evita, and you want it sung well and faithfully, the LOT can hook you up.

Details

  • Evita plays through November 23rd 2014 at the Lower Ossington Theatre. (100A Ossington Ave, halfway between Queen and Dundas.)
  • Performances are nightly at 8:00 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a 2:00 matinee on Saturdays and a 4:00 matinee on Sundays.
  • Tickets run fom $49.99 to 69.99.
  • Tickets must be purchased in advance, online only.
  • While this production is appropriate for audiences of all ages, the content may not be of interest to young children.