What a way to celebrate a century.
Leamington & Warwick Musical Society is now 100 years old. But on this evidence, it’s as vibrant and vital as it has ever been.
Evita is the latest in a line of productions that have been of an astonishingly high standard. It’s not a question of making allowances for the cast of non-professionals, or of giving patronising pats on the back for the efforts of locals. No, this would have graced pretty much any stage, pretty much anywhere. The West End came to Leamington and looked and sounded like, well, the West End.
We are used to the society staging time-honoured favourites and lively newer works: in recent years, these have included Singin’ in the Rain, Oklahoma and Legally Blonde. But the challenge posed by Evita is of another level. In industry jargon, the show is ‘sung through’; there is no spoken dialogue, with almost every word intoned with music. The score spans grand torch songs, exuberant Latin-infused dance numbers, Gregorian-style chant, tender duets and rousing, roared choruses. Tim Rice’s lyrics are intricate and multilingual, while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is as rich as any he wrote, the timeless drama of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and the desolate elegance of Another Suitcase In Another Hall being the best-known songs here.
Then there is the story. This is not a musical painted in primary colours. There are no obvious heroes or villains. Complexity, compromise and calculation abound: purity, clarity and honesty are scarce. The extraordinary and true story of Eva Peron could easily be sanitised as a classic rags-to-riches tale; yet here, even when this woman of modest origins is marrying the president of Argentina, we are unsure whether to celebrate. The characters are always interesting, often compelling and occasionally admirable; whether they are likeable is another matter.
All this makes for an intriguing show but one that makes immense demands of its performers. So it helps that the talent is up to the task and then some. Followers of theatre in these parts will know that Nelle Cross is as good a performer as can be found anywhere, and here in the title role she is once again a scintillating presence, her voice resounding and crystalline. But what is especially remarkable this time is her acting. We first see Eva as a young actress, willing to do anything to find the adulation she craves; she ascends the ranks of society, achieving global fame, personifying – to her army of believers, at least – the newly confident Argentina of the mid-20th century. There are arguably countless Evas; Cross holds them together with elan. She genuinely seems to age two decades in two hours.
Ben Munday makes his debut for the society as Juan Peron. It is hard to believe this is his first musical for nearly 20 years; he is clearly a natural at this, although that may understate the work he has doubtless put into his performance. His voice is commanding, his manner aristocratic, but he brings some welcome soft edges to the character of the Argentine president, apparent confidence unsettled by profound doubt.
David Walters is another highly impressive debutant as Che, who provides a cutting commentary throughout, eager to puncture illusion. He is all earthy physicality and bruised might, his voice richly textured and potent.
Lisa Clifford makes the most of her brief turn as Peron’s mistress, her rendition of Another Suitcase a rare moment of sincere vulnerability. And the depth of talent extends right through the chorus; choreographer Hannah Hampson was keen to infuse the show with movement, and her charges do not let her down.
For the 34th time, Stephen Duckham directs, bringing what is now a trademark sense of polish and accomplishment. Full marks too to musical director Matt Flint and his musicians, who meet the immense challenge with skill and style, and to the designers and creators of the fine and clever set.
There will have been times over the past couple of years when many of those involved in the show will have wondered if they will ever be on stage again, if the final curtain might have fallen on this grand old company. But their hope, ambition, hard work and perseverance have been rewarded in the best way: by the applause and cheers of an audience watching ordinary people living ordinary lives doing extraordinary things for the love of it. What a way to start the next hundred years.
* Evita runs until Saturday April 9. Call 01926 334418 or visit warwickdc.ticketsolve.com/shows/1173618057 to book.