Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome

Production Run: Tue 20 - Sat 24 Mar 2018

Performance Reviewed: Tue 20 Mar 2018 (Press Night)

With his 70th birthday just around the corner, throw the question of which Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is his best offering into a ring of theatre enthusiasts, and you’d best brace yourself for tempers, if not outright violence. Even pushing aside the naysaying hipsters and Lin-Manuel obsessives, a consensus would be an unlikely thing to reach. For some, the irrepressible character and vignetted charm of Cats would claw out the competition (and in fairness there’s always an argument to be made for ‘Memory’ being his most iconic standard), whilst Phantom and Jesus have fans by the droves. Sunset Boulevard has enjoyed a renaissance of late, thanks in no small part to Glenn Close and Ria Jones’ recent double-whammy of Norma Desmond triumph, and you’ll always be able to find a merry handful of Love Never Dies or Starlight Express defenders.

They would all, however, be wrong. 

Evita remains, to this day, Lloyd Webber’s finest outing.

It is thanks, of course, in no small part due to it being one of his iconic collaborations with lyricist Tim Rice, whose sharp, witty and biting wordplay elevates practically every scene, number and exchange. Evita is famously unforgiving with its subject; Argentinian First Lady Eva Peron by way of Lloyd Webber and Rice is depicted as a manipulative opportunist - her rise from the gutter to becoming one of the most powerful, defining and iconic women of the 21st Century is undercut here with a clear sense of cunning and venom. By the time Act 2 rolls around, and the ‘money comes rolling in’, even Peron’s philanthropic and charity efforts are suggested to have been for underhanded financial and political gain.

You’ve got to get your Eva right, then. Too obvious or wretched and the whole show risks being an endurance fest with a detestable lead. Too sweet or ambiguous and the show loses its boldness (see Madonna’s vanilla attempt in the 1996 film adaptation). Sure, she’s propped up by some amazing numbers, but she’s a complicated cookie, and whoever steps into her iconic white gown also has to get their lungs around some of the gruelling vocal demands of Webber and Rice’s work.

It’s wonderful, then, to see the return of Madalena Alberto in a role that theatre audiences were first treated to her in back in 2013. Her successors, such as last year’s ever-dependable Emma Hatton, brought their own virtues and flavour to the role, but there’s just no denying Alberto’s ‘touch of star quality’ and complete command of the character, that will, for many, continue to cement her as a definitive Eva. 

If we’ve jumped forward a few years, then Alberto’s take on Peron this time round is a little more poised and restrained, yet no less bewitching. Her vocal gymnastics bound between the delicate, crystalline precision of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ and ‘You Must Love Me’, to the roaring belts and highs of ‘A New Argentina’ and ‘Rainbow High’, whilst the conviction with which she charts the character’s almost breakneck trajectory across the lean, two-hour show from cunning, spirited starlet to cancer-stricken husk remains astonishing.

If Alberto is a seminal Eva, then audiences will take delight in her being paired with an equally impressive foil in the form of Gian Marco Schiaretti’s ‘Che’. Jeremy Secomb is in fine voice, and a dignified presence on stage as Eva’s husband, Colonel - later President - Peron, but it is Schiaretti who really shines alongside Alberto. 

This is, quite simply, the perfect Evita casting concoction.

Capturing a raw, barely repressed fire that erupts from his cynical overseer with ferocity and raw masculinity, not to mention at times astonishing vocals (just wait for his final falsetto of ‘And The Money Keeps Rolling In’), much like his leading lady, it IS at times difficult to imagine how Schiaretti could be bettered.

Aesthetically, this is the same imposing, effective staging work by Matthew Wright and Mark Howett as we’ve seen before, but it has lost none of its simple grandeur and impact. Bill Deamer’s sharp choreography bandies between more full-on, conventional ensemble numbers such as ‘Buenos’ and ‘And The Money’, which are welcome interludes from the otherwise savvy, characterful work he does in setting the show’s political and personal power plays to dance (‘The Art of the Possible’, ’Peron’s Latest Flame’).

Rewind a few years, and Kenwright’s UK Tour of Evita was a five star, must-see event that cemented Madalena Alberto as one of musical theatre’s most potent talents. Five years on, and the show returns, bringing Alberto back with it on glorious, radiant form, and whilst what we have here is for all intents and purposes much the same production, it is easily just as essential an experience. 

A masterclass in musical theatre that drips with class and awe, and a night of a thousand stars - particularly its leading duo - that also just happens to be, yes, Lloyd Webber’s finest hour.

Did I not already mention that?

… I’m off to hide before the ‘Phandoms’ come after me.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets: 0844 338 5000 / Official Website: click