It's Evita at the double as show acts to combat pandemic trouble
WHY will York Light Opera Company have two Evas, two Juan Perons and two Ches in Evita?
Director Martyn Knight has decided to use double casting for the main roles in the production at York Theatre Royal in response to Covid-19's ongoing impact.
"For the five principal roles, they're all double cast, because we're still in a pandemic and we wanted to protect ourselves," he says. "We've kept the principal casts separate, which has required us to double the rehearsal time and rehearse in separate rooms.
"But we've had cast members drop out with Covid; we've had cast members drop out with long Covid; we've had cast members suffer injuries. We are on our 18th cast list due to people having to pull out. It's been a nightmare but it's also been a labour of love."
Explaining his reasoning behind "doing the double", he says: "It's a fully sung show and double casting provides each team with sufficient rest. The main character parts are huge and it would be a colossal 'ask' of any understudy to learn and have to perform those roles without significant rehearsal.
"Double casting provides the best possible cover, which is needed more than ever when putting on the production during a pandemic."
All the while, Martyn had his annual pantomime commitment for the 18th year from November to January as the resident dame at Eastbourne's Devonshire Park Theatre, playing Nelly Nightnurse in Sleeping Beauty.
"The gutting thing for me is that I'd never missed a performance, in all those years, working through shingles, ear, nose and throat issues and stomach problems, but then I tested positive for Covid on New Year's Eve," he says. "Out of 13, ten of us went down with it during the run; at one point, we had no ensemble and the baddie had to use the stage crew as her minions.
"But I managed to return for the last day, and it was a very powerful, emotional feeling doing the panto this winter, playing to 25,000 people. They needed it, the joy of seeing a show, and that's why we're so determined to get theatre back on."
Hence the precautions taken by York Light for Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical account of the rags-to-riches life story of Eva Peron as she goes from poor provincial child to First Lady of Argentina on her "Rainbow Tour", using popularity and politics to serve both her people and herself.
For this musical of people, power and politics, Alexa Chaplin and Emma-Louise Dickinson will share the lead role of Eva Peron; Dale Vaughan and Jonny Holbek will play Che; John Hall and Neil Wood, Juan Peron; Dave Copley-Martin and Richard Weatherill, Agustin Maglidi, and Fiona Phillips and Hannah Witcomb, Peron's Mistress.
Since initial rehearsals last autumn, Alexa and Emma-Louise had not seen each other until their paths crossed in the car park at last Sunday's rehearsals.
"It's been a very different experience, where we were only together early in the process, when Martyn was blocking the show, but that was a long time ago," says Alexa. "It feels very odd not knowing what the other set of principals will be like, but doing it this way, dividing the performances, has meant I could do a show I couldn't otherwise do, with childcare requirements.
"It will be interesting to see if each night off will feel restful or whether we'll be chomping at the bit to get back on stage."
In preparing for the lead role, Alexa says: "I'm quite a nerd, when it comes to research, reading biographies, finding out about the character, but then, what writers do to a character in a musical is not fully true to life, and you have to bridge that gap of how they interpret her.
"But I feel whatever you think about her politics, Eva's absolute tenacity and drive and endless energy is incredible and the musical demands that you match that energy, with it being such a 'big sing'."
Emma-Louise was last on stage in a musical in February 2020, playing Nancy in Oliver! at York Theatre Royal, in the weeks before the first Covid lockdown. "The only thing I've done since then was the Raise The Roof fundraiser for the Joseph Rowntree Theatre with everyone spaced out and a restricted audience capacity," she says.
"If someone had said you won't do a musical for two yearsbut at least I've been fortunate in being able to engage in singing online as a music teacher. It's such a discipline, performing, and after such a long time off, it's been a challenge building up the stamina again since we started rehearsals in September."
Contemplating playing Eva Peron, Emma-Louise says: "Whenever you're playing a real-life character, there's an added pressure to make it accurate, so there's not as much room for interpretation.
"I've learned how fascinating it is that someone can be so adored but so reviled, and the only thing I can liken it to is the story of Princess Diana. They were both controversial figures, but when Diana died there was this huge devastation, and her legacy has grown and grown, just as it has for Eva Peron."
York Light Opera Company in Evita, York Theatre Royal, runs until February 19, 7.30pm (except February 13); 2.30pm matinees, February 12 and 19. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.