Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Jan Alexandra Smith
Spriet Stage, The Grand Theatre
September 19–30, 2017
An Unqualified Success? An Unqualified Yes
At one point in Evita, Juan Peron and the ever-present critic Che debate whether Eva Peron’s Rainbow Tour was a qualified or unqualified success. It’s an apt moment for a musical that is presented with its own qualification — a High School Project amateur production.
The thing is, Evita stands alone as an unqualified success — and one of the most well-structured, performed, and entertaining stage presentations to appear on the Grand’s Spriet Stage in a long time — professional or qualified with a “high school” designation.
It hits you almost immediately. The mourning chorus lifting its voices, singing in sublime harmony with power and beauty, as Eva Peron’s coffin adorns the stage. And then Keith Ssemugenyi strides onto the stage as Che, with an easy, confident presence. He opens his mouth to open Oh What a Circus and the audience immediately sits up and takes notice.
Ssemugenyi’s Che essentially narrates the play through song, providing counterpoint and questioning of the legend of Eva Peron. And he’s by far a standout of the production — but not the only one.
Five women play Eva Peron throughout the play, representing her at various stages in her life: at seven, at 15, at 20, as the First Lady of Argentina, and as “a Saint” (Amber Sellars, Jordyn Taylor, Leyla Boyacigil, Mikela Marcellin, and Izabella Majewska, respectively). Each actress brings her own style and vocal dynamic to the production, but they complement each other beautifully. Though each is unique, they’re able to maintain a thread of consistency in the presentation and the transitions from iteration to iteration are cleverly done and seamless.
And as the final principal character, Peter Nye brings a deep, rich, and beautiful vocal to the role of Juan Peron that resonates throughout the latter half of the play.
They may be high school students, but their vocal performances, movement, and presence on stage could easily transition to a professional production. In fact, the quality was so good that I began to regret that any of these actors weren’t cast in the Grand’s previous musical production — the professionally done Colours in the Storm — as they could have easily propped up some uneven performances.
There were a couple of moments where voices broke or trailed off — and those were the only times that you realized that these were kids. Otherwise, they performed, sang, and moved with a maturity well beyond their years.
The choreography was well designed and superbly executed. Transitions from scene to scene were done through movement and dance, and the chorus filled the stage with movement and colour, adding layers to the experience.
And the content, of course, is enjoyable. Lloyd Webber and Rice are known for creating musical theatre that’s dynamic, accessible, and enjoyable. The music of Evita, though showing a bit of the strains of time, is still resonant to audiences today. And the orchestra is electric — though they ran the risk of overwhelming the stage performers early in the production. Those levels seemed to even out very quickly — and the ’70s era funky guitar was a particular, personal favourite.
Evita is a stellar production. And therein lies its challenge. It is a High School Project amateur production — that is 100 percent true. But for many “high school” and “amateur” can have limited-to-negative connotations. To others, it can imply an overly saccharine production.
Honestly, I implore you ignore the “HSP” aspect at first because Evita is an outstanding production that stands on its own — regardless of age. And when the curtain comes down, only then embrace the “high school” designation and appreciate the fact that these young actors put on a musical with talent and style seemingly well beyond their years. And appreciate that some of these kids are just starting their acting careers and we have the pleasure of watching them grow.