With “Evita”, the first-ever collaborative effort between TPAC and Studio Tenn, the joint venture is living up to and surpassing all expectations with–if you’ll pardon the “Evita” soundtrack references–enough “Star Quality” to make the show and it’s Broadway-worthy cast “high flying” and adored” long after the show finishes it’s run. Featuring Broadway great and local favorites, “Evita” continues through Sunday, September 18 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall.
Even before entering Jackson Hall last weekend for opening night, I was filled with anticipation, knowing Studio Tenn consistently delivers some of the best theatrical experiences this town…this state has ever seen. Coupled with TPAC, who for 34 years, has hosted national touring companies of Tony-winners and Broadway’s best, expectations were high. So I shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, this new Nashville-based presentation of the seven-time Tony-winning musical does everything right.
From the first glimpse of the palatial set, beautifully depicting Eva and Juan Perón’s Buenos Aries home, the Casa Rosada, those familiar with Studio Tenn no doubt immediately recognize artistic director Matt Logan’s visionary genius. Just as quickly as the stately backdrop is observed, the eye swiftly focuses on a bright crimson fabric hanging over the entire set, reminiscent of a blood-soaked burial shroud. Hauntingly perfect, considering “Evita” begins with the death of Eva Perón, who through not just her own, but her entire country’s blood, sweat and tears, will forever be remembered as Argentina’s Santa Evita.
Praised for her turn as Elphaba in Broadway’s “Wicked”, as well as the National Tour, and several other projects, vocal powerhouse Eden Espinosa is perfectly cast as Evita. Espinosa’s performance is often as stern and commanding as Patti LuPone, who starred in “Evita”‘s 1979 Broadway debut. At times she’s also remarkably vocally similar to Madonna, who brought the show to new audiences with the 1996 film adaptation. That’s not to say Espinosa doesn’t bring her own flair to the role. She does indeed. In early scenes, there’s a timidness, even in her vocal performances that perfectly mirrors Eva’s youthful optimism and lifelong self-doubt. Of course anyone who’s familiar with the role knowns that wide-eyed young girl quickly fades and the scheming powerful manipulator soon emerges, fully camouflaging that ever-present self-doubt. Espinosa is equally adept at bringing that side of Evita to life. A prime example of Evita the manipulator comes early in Act 1 when she unceremoniously dismisses lover after lover on her climb up the ladder to success in “Goodnight and Thank You”. Eva’s persuasive nature comes through in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You”.
Yes, Espinosa has the audience waiting with baited breath for the show’s big number–you know the one–white ball gown, diamond-adorned neck, outstretched arms and all, but it’s Espinosa’s emotional performance midway through Act 2 during “You Must Love Me” that leaves the audience wanting absolutely nothing else because with that one song, Espinosa gives them everything they could possibly want. Interesting, considering that tune written specifically for the film specifically in hopes of garnering the show an Oscar. Of course it did indeed win an Oscar and has been frequently inserted into stagings of “Evita” since.
The way “Evita” is devised, while she is indeed the star and central character, it’s the show’s narrator, Che, who’s often front and center. When originally conceived, Che, though he shares a first name with famed Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, was to simply represent. Broadway legend has it the show’s original New York director, Harold Prince convinced creators Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to present Mandy Patinkin as the embodiment of Guevara. In more recent revivals, Che has been played as the ‘everyman’ Rice and Webber had originally intended. To that end, Broadway star Ben Crawford steals scene after scene as a more playful, albeit ultimately omniscient Che.
With matinee idol looks, Crawford, whose Broadway credits include “On the Twentieth Century”, “Shrek the Musical” and “Les Miserables”, enchants the audience from the beginning, but it’s his gorgeous voice showcased in familiar Rice/Weber tunes “Oh, What A Circus”, “Rainbow Tour”, “And The Money Kept Rolling In” that hold that enchantment throughout. Of all the songs featuring both Espinosa’s Evita and Crawford’s Che, “Waltz for Eva and Che” is among the highlights. Aside from their great on-screen chemistry, in spite of the characters’ inherent disdain for one another, the number also serves to showcase Emily Tello-Speck’s gorgeous meticulously thoughtful choreography. Enchanting, romantic, smooth, Crawford can be seen giving the audience a knowing look and even playful attitude as he occasionally seems to cheekily frolic across stage as if lightheartedly mocking the seriousness of Evita’s mission of domination.
Of course Eva couldn’t have risen to power and fame were her husband, Juan Perón. Enter Broadway legend, Anthony Crivello (Tony-winner for his critically acclaimed portrayal as Valentin in the original Broadway production of “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”). As if that pedigree weren’t enough, about a decade before “Kiss”, Crivello appeared in the original Broadway run of “Evita” in the role of Che, a role the then took on the road for the show’s premiere National Tour. Quintessentially swarthy and majestic, Crivello’s performance as Perón is a theatre geeks dream come true. Although he’s featured in many numbers during the show, Crivello’s “She Is A Diamond”, in which Perón extols Evita’s accomplishments, while simultaneously acknowledging her faults and eventual physical decline, is his personal pinnacle. Breathtaking, indeed.
Speaking of breathtaking, Matt Logan’s stunning costume designs are out of this world. From the aforementioned iconic “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” gown and the dozen or so additional costume changes Espinosa experiences during the show, to the details of the entire company’s wardrobe, whether the dancers, the aristocracy of the common people. Which reminds me, Logan’s beautiful wardrobe, and his eye for subtle directional detail meld seamlessly in a scene in which Evita’s funding of her foundation, at the expense of the people, is cleverly brought to life courtesy of a quick-change during which the aristocracy are forced to discard their riches and finery into a passing donation bin as they’re left stripped down to their unmentionables.
Another telling moment courtesy the mind of Matt Logan comes when Evita is sitting at her dressing table wearing only her slip…and diamonds. Even stripped down in her most intimate of surroundings, she keeps the jewels on, as if to convey she’s hiding behind the facade they indicate. This scene is accentuated by Logan’s set design. Aside from Evita’s dressing table, the only other set piece visible is a bejeweled angular chandelier hanging on the opposite side of the stage. The visual of the chandelier and Evita’s necklace glimmering in unison reinforces the beauty, yet emptiness of not only the set, but of Evita’s superficial nature.
Filled with beautiful moments like that, Studio Tenn’s “Evita” not only shines because of it’s three primary stars, but also by the two remaining featured actors and the entire supporting ensemble. Current Nashvillian René Millán is joyously entertaining as Migauldi, one of Eva’s earliest rungs on her ladder to success. With tongue planted firmly in cheek as a less-than-stellarly talented tango singer who no doubt realizes Eva is simply using him, Millán makes the most of his time on stage during his two musical numbers “On This Night of A Thousand Stars” and “Charity Concert”.
Also only briefly featured, and also another Nashville talent is Mia Rose Lynne as Perón’s Mistress. In a scene similar to the aforementioned “Goodnight and Thank You”, Evita informs The Mistress that her time with Perón has come to an end. With that, Lynne performs what is not only my personal favorite tune from the show, but easily the night’s best performance with the stunning “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”. Having seen Lynne as Louise in Studio Tenn’s “Gypsy”, I knew she’d be wonderful, but brilliant, owning the night with just one tune? Who knew?
As for the ensemble, they’re practically too numerous to name. I say practically because, as an ardent fan of Nashville theatre, some people simply stand out whether with by a little something extra in their movement, the way they carry themselves on stage, or just their overall presence. Among them: Tony Nappo, Nan Gurley, Scott Patrick Wilson, Anna Perry, Caleb Marshall, Billy Ditty and Lauri Gregoire.
Speaking of Perry and Marshall & Ditty and Gregoire, when these two couples, paired for most dance sequences, are on stage, the eye is instantly drawn to them. Whether together as pairs, or separately, these four masterfully, fluidly, dreamily perform Tello-Speck’s gorgeous choreography.
Lastly, Studio Tenn and TPAC’s “Evita” wouldn’t be as powerful a show were it not for several behind the scenes folks. From Studio Tenn’s managing director Jake Speck and TPAC’s president and CEO Kathleen O’Brien for bringing these two prestigious theatrical companies together, to the crew, including lighting designer Scott Leathers, technical director Mitch White, production manager Erin Parker, stage manager Benji Kern and musical director Stephen Kummer.
How magical it is that this group of people as a group can so gorgeously convey the rise and fall of Eva Perón with such precision, beauty, and power. This is done so in such a harmonious and cohesive way that the average viewer might not notice the once palatial Casa Rosada, thanks to a bit of clever lighting and and intensely emotional score, seems almost in ruins by the end of the show; that a stage as expansive as TPAC’s Jackson Hall can seem so intimate as Eva Peron reluctantly gives way to a weakened body and spirit. From Eva’s etherial entrance to Santa Evita’s chilling exit…Brava, Studio Tenn and TPAC, Brava.
Studio Tenn’s “Evita” continues it’s run at TPAC’s Jackson Hall with shows through Sunday, September 18, Click Here to purchase tickets. For more about “Evita”, Click Here. To check out what TPAC has in store for their 2016/2017 season, Click Here. Studio Tenn’s full season can be explored Here.
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