Studio Tenn is a theater company that has been growing in both stature and ambition in recent years. The Franklin-based troupe concluded its past three seasons at Schermerhorn Symphony Center with productions of Les Misérables, The Wizard of Oz, and West Side Story. To start its 2016/17 season, the company set its eyes on a bigger prize: two weeks performing an original, all-new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in TPAC‘s Jackson Hall.
This production of Evita puts aside any doubts: with Artistic Director Matt Logan at the helm, Studio Tenn has undoubtedly emerged as Middle Tennessee’s foremost company in terms of theatrical craftsmanship. Evita tells the story of Eva Perón’s meteoric rise rise from impoverished obscurity to become a wildly adored public figure as the first lady of Argentina. A key component to Eva and her husband Juan’s success was their expert care and attention to cultivating a precise and highly effective public image through emergent mass media, which in the 1940s included radio, film, and television. Studio Tenn captures the spirit of this purposeful manipulation of public perception through stunning visual effects and choreography throughout the performance. Even small details like the sheer, red fabric draped across the proscenium at the beginning of performance communicate the mixture of allure, sultriness, and pseudo-elegance that characterizes the Peróns’ rise to power.
Unfortunately, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is not quite up to the challenge of Studio Tenn’s high-flying ambitions. While Eva Perón is a fascinating, contradictory person whose life story has filled the pages of many compelling books, Lloyd Webber manages to reduce her to a caricature of a gold-digging maneater. While the glitz and glam of Evita’s story certainly makes for stunning spectacle, equally important to her story are the realities of intense oppression of the poor and the ever-lingering specter of military interventionism in Argentine politics. Aside from some sideways references and the song “The Lady’s Got Potential,” which is omitted from most productions as it was in Studio Tenn’s rendering, the musical mostly ignores the political and social reality that made a public persona like Evita not only possible but irresistible.
Luckily, we don’t typically go see a musical for hard-hitting socio-political and historical criticism. The unhappy truth, however, is that Evita just isn’t that great a musical. The collaboration between Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice began as a concept album that was immensely successful because of the smash single “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” The album’s brisk sales led the two to develop the score into a show. Pop quiz: name one other song from Evita. The rest of the score simply doesn’t stand up very well; “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is a soaring and transcendent song, but a single melody can’t be expected to sustain a two-and-a-half hour performance.
In Studio Tenn’s production, “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out)” was the showstopper of the second act, with a rollicking beat and extraordinary dancing. The song is about the Peróns stealing away a fortune to their Swiss bank accounts while in power, which isn’t exactly critical to the plot of a play that has cast its main character as morally and ethically questionable from the very beginning. It’s one of many examples in this production of a strong cast and excellent technical team getting the very most out of a musical that simply doesn’t have that much to offer. Studio Tenn is on an upward trajectory to be a theater company that puts on ambitious, artistically excellent productions on a consist basis. I just hope that their next choice is a musical that deserves their level of talent and energy.