Three Broadway stars lead the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's powerful musical during TPAC's first-ever collaboration with Studio Tenn theater company and the launch of the season's Broadway Series.
With the opening of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) 2016 – 2017 Broadway Series this weekend, its first-time collaboration with regional theater company Studio Tenn is bringing more than just a little bit of star quality to the Jackson Hall stage with the mounting of the beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Evita.
“After 34 years of presenting Broadway, we are doing something we’ve never done before in presenting a collaboration with a local theater company on our season. We have wanted to present Evita for some time, and when we found out Studio Tenn wanted to produce that show, the stars aligned for us to seize the opportunity,” says Kathleen O’Brien, TPAC president and CEO. “This allows us to present a highly anticipated title using Nashville’s creative capability, cast it with Broadway stars and provide audiences the chance to experience the incredible artistry, design and craftsmanship behind its creation,” she adds.
This inaugural joint effort between TPAC and Studio Tenn is one that comes with much anticipation from Nashville’s vast community of theater lovers. To date, it’s the biggest and most ambitious production Studio Tenn has set out to accomplish. Keeping with the company’s mission to present shows featuring the talent of Nashville and Broadway, Studio Tenn boasts three notable stars from the Great White Way heading up the Evita cast — Eden Espinosa as Eva “Evita” Peron (Broadway credits include Wicked, Brooklyn the Musical and Rent), Ben Crawford as Che (Broadway credits include Les Miserables, Shrek the Musical, Big Fish and On the Twentieth Century) and Tony Award-winner Anthony Crivello as Juan Peron. Crivello won the 1993 Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. His Broadway resumé is robust, and his first brush with Broadway was in 1983 when he replaced Mandy Patinkin as Che in the original run of Evita.
“I’m stepping into another set of shoes and starting all over again on this interesting journey,” says Crivello. “Evita brought me to Broadway. The first thing I did in New York was Che in Evita when I was 23 getting to work with the likes of Hal Prince,” he adds. A lot of theater patrons recognize Crivello for his tenure playing the lead in Phantom of the Opera, but he says Evita has a stronger tug with him personally. “Phantom fans might not like me saying this,” Crivello laughs, “but I connect more to Evita than I do to Phantom … just the human story and the tragedy of it … it’s great fun to explore Juan Peron now,” he adds.
The great Patti LuPone originated the role of Eva Peron on Broadway in 1979 (she won a Tony, and the role rocketed her to stardom), and through the years, she’s been vocal about how difficult and challenging the role was for her due to the complexity of Lloyd Webber’s score. “This score is so difficult to sing,” said LuPone in a 2010 interview with NPR. “There’s a couple of notes that aren’t as strong as your top notes or your bottom notes, and that’s exactly where the score sits,” she added, noting the need for guts and power to pull off the “voice-buster” for any woman performing the role.
“It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s completely different from anything else I’ve ever done,” says Broadway powerhouse Espinosa during an interview between rehearsal breaks. “I think when you’re categorized as a belter on Broadway, people think, ‘Oh, you’d be right for any belting role.’ The truth is, up to this point I’ve done mostly contemporary musical theater roles,” she says.
The challenge of Evita has made the dynamic actress take a different approach to what she calls her dream role. “You cannot approach this in a contemporary way AT ALL. It doesn’t serve the material first of all, and you physically couldn’t do it; you’d be out after three or four shows,” Espinosa says. “I really had to take the time to retrain my mind and my voice. I haven’t sang this way in a long time with really using my entire range, not just a little section of it,” she adds.
Espinosa’s vibrant sense of humor comes through as she shares her predecessor’s lament. “Patti LuPone said it’s obvious that a man wrote this music, because it’s super hard. There have been several times that I’ve been learning something with Ben, and I’m just like, ‘ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER!!!!!!!!’ — literally cursing his name!” Espinosa exclaims with an enthusiastic chuckle. “Melodically, you have to drill, drill, drill because it’s not easy to learn, and it’s not easy on the ear. You don’t know where the melody is going … you think you know where it’s going, then it takes a left turn, then it takes a down turn, then it goes up and it’s crazy. I’ve had to dust off some cobwebs in certain areas of my voice, but it’s been a super rewarding challenge because it’s made me excited about singing in a more legit classic approach,” she adds.
Espinosa says she’s fascinated by many of the things she’s discovered about the real Eva Peron while doing research, and she hopes some of that translates to the stage during the 11 performances at TPAC.
“Once I started rehearsals, I realized this is going to be harder than I thought because all the research I did led me to find out that she wasn’t really what this musical depicts her as … there was so much more to her, and I really want to bring that out as much as possible, which is difficult at times because of the way that it’s written,” says Espinosa. “My challenge and my mission is to flesh her out as a fully rounded human being showing more vulnerability. Yes, she’s powerful, but she’s also vulnerable, and she’s also gracious and caring and loving, not just a power-hungry climber,” she adds.
One of the fascinating aspects of Evita is that it’s based on real historical figures. We follow young Eva Duarte’s journey from humble beginnings to stardom and her marriage and influence on Juan Peron when she becomes the First Lady of Argentina. Much of the musical is narrated by Che (based on the real life Che Guevara), a character representative of the Argentine community’s voice of opposition. The Evita story line may resonate with audiences today as we wind through a contentious election ourselves. The smoke and mirrors, the propaganda, society’s need for hope — all of these are elements that bring the humanity to Evita, and that’s the message Studio Tenn Artistic Director Matt Logan hopes the audiences will experience.
“Ultimately, what I hope people get is a human message instead of just a thematic Evita message, and what I mean by that is Eva Peron,” says Logan. “It must go past just her. It can highlight her, it can incite us to want to know a lot more, but I think in many ways this story is a vessel to tell a much larger human story, and that relates it to the people,” he adds.