This Evita from producer Bill Kenwright has been round the block a few times. If you caught it on one of its provincial tours you'll know what to expect: a free-flowing, uncluttered performance set amid layered colonnades and a segmented travelling balcony. Matthew Wright's designs are elegance itself, and so too is the production.
The true story of Argentinian first lady Eva Perón's ruthless rise and premature demise is as operatic a subject as could be imagined, and Tim Rice's theatrical telling of it is trenchant, witty and far subtler than he's sometimes given credit for. Kenwright and his co-director Bob Tomson have steeped themselves in this score and their polished account teases out nuggets of subtext at every turn, abetted on this occasion by the devastatingly good Eva of Madalena Alberto.
Just a little touch of star quality? Her performance has much more than that. Alberto can Lauren-Bacall and Machiavell in colours more magical than anyone I can remember: now flirtatious, now imperious and ultimately a tear-stained wreck for the 11-o'clock number "You Must Love Me" (a song that first appeared in the film version). Andrew Lloyd Webber's score holds no terrors for this Portuguese-born diva, and she brings every word, every note, to three-dimensional life.
Her co-star is another matter. Marti Pellow may be a charismatic and individual pop singer but he is what he is – and Che isn't it. The revolutionary-as-narrator ought to be an ascerbic presence whose sardonic commentary spits proletarian barbs into Evita's cushioned tale; he should bring a lacing of humour too – a quality that the role's earliest incumbents, David Essex and Gary Bond, had in spades. Pellow merely lurks onstage, stolid and grim-faced, and delivers his numbers with an emulsified rock timbre that clouds their savagery.
Ben Forster will be the ideal Che one day, but for now he is Magaldi, the tango singer who unwittingly becomes the first rung on Eva's ladder to the top. This is luxury casting: TV's Superstar winner steals every scene he's in (which is not many) and showcases crooner chops that are more than a match for his rock-god voice. He's probably too good to convince as a provincial sleazeball but I can live with that.
Former Phantom Matthew Cammelle is a handsomely baritonal Perón who brings dramatic depth to his scenes with Alberto; Sarah McNicholas, meanwhile, grabs her moment as Perón's banished mistress with a plaintively graceful account of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall". The ensemble is a further delight, whether individually in the show's countless cameos or collectively as army officers, aristocrats or assorted descamisados.
We need a ‘better together' campaign for Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Since Evita, which was their last full-scale collaboration, each of them has experienced further individual successes (and, lately, failures), yet it's their partnership that's the stuff of legend. Here's why.