Evita Getting the song and dance just right
Surein De S. Wijeyeratne’s little girl knows all the words to all the songs in ‘Evita’. Shanya may be just 2 ˝ years old, but she’s surrounded by a theatre company in full swing. Her living room is regularly invaded by Workshop Players getting ready to stage Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s classic musical. Surein, who serves as Assistant Director (Music) has been drilling his ensemble and his soloists.
At his side is Shanuki De Alwis, Assistant Director (Choreography) who is determined to bring the flamboyance of the Latin American dance forms to the stage. It’s been a fun challenge for them both – “the struggle has been getting the actors to sing, the singers to act, and both to dance, while the dancers are learning to sing and act,” says Surein laughing.
“Essentially, we’re trying to recreate the current Broadway revival, so we’re looking at everything we can,” Shanuki tells us. It’s tough going, piecing it all together from the scraps of video and the photographs online, but Shanuki is philosophical about the limitations of her amateur troupe. “In terms of choreography there’s a lot Broadway is doing that we cannot do.” Her solution is to figure out simpler versions of the steps while keeping it as authentic as she can.
Shanuki, who used to be on intimate terms with several Latin American dance forms (“I used to dance competitively but that was back when Santa Claus was young”), is enjoying immersing herself in it again – from the Argentinian tango to the salsa, the steps are quick, fluid and innately sensual.
Shanuki sees the progression from one form to another as far from random, particularly in the case of Evita, the lead character. “Evita changes – in terms of body language, she matures, from that salsa which is very free to a very sexual tango and then it goes into a waltz, where she’s more refined.” Throughout, Evita must also deliver her dialogue entirely in song. Fans will know that this isn’t one of those musicals where the action is interspersed with musical interludes, instead “everything is sung from beginning to end – it’s 2 ˝ hours of continuous singing,” says Surein.
Finding an Evita who could master the complex role was a long drawn-out process with the team determined to give every contender time to really prove themselves. “You can’t judge if someone can play Evita by listening to them sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’,” says Surein. “Everyone can sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ but can you sing it and dance it and act it at the same time? Discovering that is a longer process.” They’ve been lucky enough to find more than one talented actress to fill the role and the production will boast no less than four Evitas, two Ches and two Juan Peróns. Shanuki is among the first and she says that each actor has their own version of the role: “there are different interpretations that we apply to ourselves. Hopefully, the audiences will appreciate it.”
This has been the modus operandi in recent Workshop Players productions, but Surein remembers a different time. “In the early years of Workshop, there were 20 of us and we did everything. If you got hoarse, you sang hoarse,” he says, “but now audiences expect more” – and they intend to deliver.
Having spent so much time working on it, Surein is filled with admiration for what Webber and Rice have accomplished. “It’s very clever storytelling,” he says, sharing his belief that audiences often miss out on the nuances of the story if they aren’t paying attention to the lyrics. “’High Flying, Adored’ and ‘You Must Love Me’ are very popular, but there are the subtler ones that actually tell a lot more of the story that a lot of people aren’t familiar with,” says Surein. The two explain how they’ve noticed how politically relevant the musical is to Sri Lanka. “There are all these similarities you can draw and some of that is in these throw away lines – so don’t lose that line, it’s very real and very relevant,” says Surein.
For Shanuki, the challenge is to design sequences that enhance that communication. “We have to, in song, transcribe that story to the audiences,” she says, “Every single word that is sung has to be acted, so that people are actually following the story.”
As opening night draws closer, the rehearsals are only going to get more intense. “It’s been a long time since I danced like this and I’m enjoying it,” says Shanuki, laughing as confesses: “The cast hates me for it though but they’re becoming better and better at it.”
This painstaking transformation is all the reward that Surein and Shanuki need. “It’s really nice to see people step up, to see it all come alive in front of you,” says Shanuki.
‘Evita’ is presented by the Workshop Players in arrangement with The Really Useful Group Ltd. It will take to the boards from October 5th to the 14th 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. Wijeyeratne 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.
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