It opens with a funeral. Hundreds of thousands of mourners dressed in black swirl around a solitary casket. Their voices raised in grief seem to fill skies, cloaking all of Buenos Aires in sorrow. They are heard loudest in the villas miserias and louder still in the elegant homes of the Argentinian elite. They cry one name -“Evita!” – but there a man stands apart from the crowd. The same name is on his lips but he tells you that all he sees is a circus over a dead actress. “Your queen is dead, your king is through. She’s not coming back to you,” Ché, the narrator sings, quite unapologetic about being the bearer of bad news.
Watching the scene unfold is another man with reservations about Eva Perón. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, Jerome L. de Silva, Artistic Director of the Workshop Players, stands with his back to a wall of mirrors. In front of him, the ensemble is in full rehearsal. They’ve been at it for weeks and come October, they will become the only company to be staging the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical concurrently with Evita’s 2012 Broadway revival. For Jerome, this is the chance to revisit the musical and to come to a different conclusion. When Ceylon Theatres first staged it here in the 1980s, they played it soft, he says: “Evita wasn’t so hard, she was actually nice.”
This was no fault of Webber’s who never had any reservation about sharing his dislike of the woman his successful musical was based on. In fact the revival on Broadway, starring Ricky Martin as Ché, Elena Roger as Eva and Michael Cerveris as Juan Perón, takes a much more cynical view of Evita’s life. Despite being beloved of millions and a woman who was all but deified by her people, Evita and her husband have more than once been accused of hubris, corruption and greed, with a penchant for repression and torture. Even if she was neither one nor the other, neither saint nor sinner but simply human, Evita’s extraordinary success feeds the imagination.
Born illegitimate and poor, she came to the city to try her hand at acting. By her own admission, she was never any good. However, she found the role of a lifetime when she became the wife of General Perón and the ardent champion of the descamisados or the ‘shirtless ones.’ “She climbed up – she slept her way to the top, its true – but she was an attractive woman and she wasn’t going to stay down there in the dumps,” says Jerome, who confesses, “I like the spunk in her, I like her guts.” It’s this toughness he wants his Evita to have. He admires the lack of polish that Elena Rogers has allowed to creep into her portrayal of Argentina’s most famous First Lady. He points out that Elena stirs in a hint of crudity that takes the edge of the almost cloying purity that some songs would otherwise have.
Jerome has had time to think this through – he flew to the States in June to watch the production on Broadway. He came away, his head buzzing with ideas for more elaborate sets and different interpretations of these familiar characters. “I’m going to play it authentic,” he says, using the musical’s most memorable track as an example. “‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ is for me, actually the most boring song in the whole thing, it’s a mawky melody. I’m treating it in a different way – I see it as very political,” he says. Right now, he’s wrestling his actors into shape. In the wings are four Evitas, two Chés, two Peróns and an ensemble over 50 players strong. “Typically, as of Workshop Player Productions, we have 80% – 82% new people,” says Jerome.
He’s working with assistant directors drawn from the group and the team take turns working on different aspects of the production such as singing and dance. “On Sundays I come and put in the sugar and the spice, the pepper and the salt…and the screaming,” says Jerome, laughing. Even as he grapples with ‘Evita,’ he’s already looking ahead. In his car, he has the music of Jesus Christ Superstar, which he hopes will be their next production.
Whatever comes after this for the Workshop Players, this ambitious production marks the end of a period of dormancy. Jerome seems almost surprised by the reception they’ve received and the number of sponsors pouring out of the woodwork to offer their support. He credits some of this to their recent Retrospective which looked back on 20 years of successfully staging Broadway classics like ‘Les Misérables,’ ‘Cats,’ ‘Lion King’ and most recently, ‘The Sound of Music’ in 2008. He knows the foreign productions have the edge, in particular when it comes to their technology and to actors who can make a living out of their performances. Still, for Jerome the Workshop Players have always had that ineffable quality – real heart. “We’re pushing and pulling sets where there they have it all computerised but we have always overcome that by just a little imagination and hard work,” he says.
‘Evita’ is presented by the Workshop Players in arrangement with The Really Useful Group Ltd. It will take to the boards from the 5th to the 14th of October 2012 at the Lionel Wendt Auditorium. The production stars Dilrukshi Fonseka, Shanuki de Alwis, Melanie Bibile, Dmitri Gunatilake, Mario de Soyza, Eraj de Silva, Shenoj de Alwis and Rehan Almeida. Directed by Jerome L. de Silva, with Surein De S. Wijeyratne as Assistant Director (Music) and Shanuki de Alwis Assistant Director (Choreography). The production is exclusively sponsored by Cargills Ceylon PLC and One Trust. Media sponsors are the Daily Mirror, Sunday Times and Hi!! Magazine. Box office details to be announced in September.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 12 August, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel.