Review: Studio Tenn’s Triumphant “Evita”

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Broadway stars and Nashville talent bring the story of Argentina's First Lady to emotional new heights in Studio Tenn and TPAC's inaugural collaboration.

TPAC & Studio Tenn present:
Evita (Sept. 9 – 18; All ages)
TPAC’s Jackson Hall
505 Deaderick St., Nashville
615-782-4040 • tpac.org
Show times: Tue – Thu 7:30 p.m., Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m. (no matinee on Sept. 10), Sun 1 & 6:30 p.m. (no evening show on Sept. 18)
Tickets: $20 – $80

A musical masterpiece steeped in history is making history in a whole new way right here in Nashville with TPAC and Studio Tenn’s collaborative production of Evita. It’s the first time TPAC has set out to produce a show with a local theater company to kick off its Broadway Series, and it’s the first time the uber-ambitious creative team at Studio Tenn has set out to pull off a musical of this magnitude. The result is a triumphant success on all counts, and it’s certainly the most exciting big-time theatrical collaboration Nashville has ever seen.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical based on the First Lady of Argentina opened on Broadway in 1979, picking up a whopping seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It shot Patti LuPone into stardom for originating the role of Eva Peron (she picked up a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical). Likewise, Mandy Patinkin was the deserving recipient of the Tony (Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical) for his portrayal of Che. There was a Broadway revival of Evita in 2012, which is the version Studio Tenn presents (you’ll notice the addition of “You Must Love Me,” the song written for Madonna in the 1996 movie version; the tune was included in the 2012 revival).

The complexity of Lloyd Webber’s score makes Evita a challenging show to successfully produce (LuPone herself has discussed at length the difficulty of the music), and Studio Tenn’s cast does so in a masterful, memorable way from beginning to end. Everyone in the cast seamlessly delivers a stunning, powerful work of musical theater that will not be forgotten.

Eva Peron is a role that Broadway sensation and powerhouse vocalist Eden Espinosa was destined to play, and her jaw-dropping performance is one that delivers a real human perspective that’s well rounded. Espinosa’s approach gives Eva much more than being a one-sided, power-hungry manipulator — a sole characterization that the musical in and of itself often portrays by way of how it’s written. While that is certainly one aspect of Eva — and it’s the slant that the musical typically depicts — Espinosa brings so much more humanity to the role. She presents the powerful side of Eva, absolutely, but does so while expressing a high level of style and graciousness, and most importantly, vulnerability. From the vivaciousness of “Buenos Aires” to the heartfelt plea of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” Espinosa captures the audience with a wide spectrum of real emotion while nailing the rapidly moving high and low vocal registers of the score. It’s a treasure to experience her dynamic stage presence.

Ben Crawford (kids will dig the fact he was Shrek on Broadway) gives a flawless, Tony-worthy performance as Che, the musical’s narrator who is charged with the task of being the voice of the Argentine community. And what a voice! It’s inspiring to witness Crawford’s immense talent. His performance is strong at the beginning of Act I and keeps building as the drama unfolds. Crawford’s role is also a difficult one requiring an unbelievable amount of vocal gymnastics that he executes without a hitch while living a roller coaster of honest, transparent emotion throughout the show, from intense anger to sympathy and everything in between, including doses of occasional quick wit and humor. He delivers the real show-stopping number, the exuberant “And the Money Kept Rolling In” toward the end of Act II. This exciting number alone is worth the cost of admission!

Tony Award-winner Anthony Crivello — he won the Tony for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1993 — is no stranger to Evita. In fact, it was Evita that first brought him to Broadway in the early ’80s during the show’s original run. He was Patinkin’s replacement as Che and now comes full circle stepping into the shoes of Juan Peron, giving a deft portrayal of the soldier-turned-president of Argentina. He, too, brings a great deal of emotional grit to the stage, from Peron’s hesitance of rising to political power to the reality check of his celebrity wife’s monumental political influence and the eventual heart-tugging duty he has of informing Eva of her impending death.

Rene Millan gives an appropriate humorous performance as the smarmy Tango artist Augustin Magaldi, and local actress Mia Rose Lynne (Peron’s Mistress) lends the purity of her beautiful voice to “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” The large ensemble cast comprises 43 of Nashville’s best players along with skilled students from Belmont and Lipscomb as well as a small group of local children. Recognizable talent in the crowd include favorites like Nan Gurley, Shelean Newman, Billy Ditty and Galen Fott.

A 17-piece orchestra led by musical director Stephen Kummer brings Lloyd Webber’s robust, lavish score to life. The music itself plays an important role. Lloyd Webber’s work is heavily layered with Latin flair and dramatic discordant movements, expertly striking the appropriate emotional chords that resonate off the stage into the hearts and minds of the audience, thus heightening the drama.

Evita is undoubtedly Director Matt Logan’s biggest on-stage success to date. True to form, Logan and his cast uphold the authenticity of the work, which is of utmost importance in a show based on real historical figures. Together, Logan and team exceed expectations in delivering a powerful, real human experience that makes you feel, which is what truly great theater is supposed to do. Logan also serves the show with his immense talent for costume and set design — both exquisite and right on the mark as usual.

The beauty of Evita is how powerful the show’s relevance remains, especially in the midst of our modern-day political landscape (not to mention a current general election year) where celebrities become politicians and politicians achieve celebrity status and how the media circus perpetuates it. At the heart of Evita, though, remains the fascinating truth of who Eva Peron was as a human being and how she wound up being sainted and hated at the same time, depending on what side of the fence one is on. However, even her opponents recognized the value of the hope she instilled in the common, everyday people of Argentina, because she came from those same humble beginnings. Despite how she made her way to the top and despite how self-serving some of her climb may have been, one can’t discredit the amount of good she did along the way, even if it was only at times being a beacon of hope — there’s a lot of value in that alone. Studio Tenn’s production captures Eva’s humanity in an extraordinary way.

Since its first production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 2009, Studio Tenn has done much to raise the bar of excellence in Nashville’s theater community, and its powerful, Broadway-caliber presentation of Evita just raised it a lot higher. I’m already eager to see how Studio Tenn itself is going to top this one!

 

Chad Young is the managing editor and arts/entertainment editor for this publication.

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