Eight years ago, sixth-grader Eva Noblezada spoke her first and only line in Northwest School of the Arts’ “Cinderella:” “The prince is giving a ball!”
She had no idea the show was about to become her life story.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh – Prince of the West End, London’s version of Broadway – chose the 17-year-old Charlottean to star as bar girl Kim in his much-vaunted revival of “Miss Saigon,” where she opened to raves in 2014.
At the time, the high school senior was a few months short of graduating from NWSA. She’d never held a professional theater job, let alone been the focus of a massive production. In the history of the West End, this kind of thing had happened approximately ... never.
But once she came to the party, she didn’t leave. Eva Noblezada – pronounce that “EE-vah KNOW-blay-ZAH-dah,” if you’re asking for an autograph – is about to play Eponine, her theatrical dream role, in Mackintosh’s London version of “Les Miserables.” Next winter, she’ll come to Broadway for another run as the star of “Miss Saigon.”
You’ll find her at Knight Theater Feb. 12 and 13, singing three concerts with the Charlotte Symphony: “A Symphonic Valentine” Friday and Saturday nights in the Pops series, and a Saturday morning Lollipops gig titled “It’s a Small World.”
As she comes back to her home town, the question arises: Did she ever finish high school?
“I did not,” she says, her voice flickering a bit over a cell phone from London. “There was a miscommunication about how much work I could handle while I had a job that lasted from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. I could not have kept up my health and sanity doing the homework they assigned me. I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time.”
That’s a sentence you may never hear said by or about her again, especially after her joyride at the Jimmys in 2013.
A fortunate connection
The National High School Musical Theatre Awards (known informally as the Jimmy Awards for fabled producer James Nederlander) take place each July at a Broadway theater. Eva had won best actress at the Blumeys, Charlotte’s regional competition, and earned the right to go to New York. She finished as one of five runners-up in a ceremony hosted by Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana – aptly enough, the stars of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.”
But she finished first in the heart of Tara Rubin.
Rubin had cast Broadway’s “Ghost: The Musical” the year before and melted when Eva sang “With You,” the big ballad from that show. She knew Mackintosh would soon cast “Miss Saigon.” By a happy coincidence, Rubin is also a longtime friend of Bonnie Fraker, a former New York producer – and one of Eva’s teachers at NWSA.
“Tara said, ‘I have heard this song hundreds of times but have never heard it performed better,’ ” Fraker recalls. “It was my secret hope that Tara would bring her in for something, but nobody knew it would have this impact.
“Tara put her on tape for Cameron Mackintosh, who called and wanted to see her in London the next week. Eva and her family didn’t have passports and couldn’t get any quickly, so he went to New York to see her. The original plan was to cast two or three girls to play Kim. After the second audition with him, she was confident she would be one of them – maybe an alternate or someone who sang in the ensemble and understudied.”
Instead, Eva now does six shows a week in a role “where I don’t think anyone will ever paint her full character. I started taking notes at the first rehearsal – I showed up with my pencil pouch and highlighters and little notebook, like a theater nerd – and I am still finding out what I can do with her. On a given night, she’ll be more innocent or more impetuous. It’s an amazing part.”
I’m stubborn ... I know when I’m wrong, but I also know when I’m right.
If you know Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly,” you know “Miss Saigon.” Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl at 17, falls in love with a departing American soldier in 1975, during the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong. By the second act, she has matured into a woman with a 3-year-old Eurasian son and hopes of emigrating to America. But the soldier has a Caucasian wife back home, and their lives intertwine unexpectedly.
Ask Eva – it’s impossible to refer to her as “Noblezada” – how she herself has matured as a performer over the last two years, and she laughs.
“Well, I wasn’t a performer when I came here,” she says. “Professors can teach only so much. I moved here when I was 17; I was a fetus, living by myself. I had to learn how being a young independent woman worked. I talked to experienced actors who have done films and movies for years, which was one of the biggest advantages I could ever have. Otherwise, I would have drowned.”
Luckily, Eva wasn’t the first person in her family to take this journey.
A ‘Miss Saigon’ heritage
Annette Calud Staudinger, her father’s cousin, understudied the role of Kim during the original 1990s run on Broadway and eventually assumed the part.
Staudinger, who’s so close to the family that she’s called an aunt, watched Eva grow through a childhood where she could perform “A Whole New World” (from “Aladdin”) at 3 and liked to dance, sing and make up stories for the assembled family. When Eva was 9, Staudinger took her to the place where big kids make up million-dollar stories: New York, where they attended “The Lion King.”
“I remember exactly what I was wearing and where I was sitting in the Minskoff Theatre that day,” says Eva. “All the animals were coming down the aisle in ‘Circle of Life,’ and the giraffe passed me on the left. It looked beautiful, it sounded beautiful, and I already felt a part of it.
“I had never comprehended what it took to put on that kind of performance, to transform a theater into a different world. It ignited any kind of passion I have for performing. Everything in my life exploded.” (By chance, her Jimmys triumph in 2013 came on the Minskoff stage.)
Matthew Hinson, one of her formative teachers at NWSA, says that “by sixth grade, Eva had a great voice – her own voice – and knew what she wanted.
“While she was here, our music theater program grew tremendously. To sit through 40 or 50 other kids’ performances in class can be daunting, but Eva never tuned out. She always watched intently, always took something from everyone else’s performance. That’s so rare.”
She applied the same discipline to herself. “If you want (success), you have to watch every kind of movie from every kind of era,” she says. “You have to watch yourself in the mirror and do the numbers over and over. You have to know why you turn your head at that moment. You have to ask, ‘How do I learn to cry?’
“That used to kind of freak me out. I thought, ‘Am I weird? Why am I so obsessed with this?’ ”
A star’s work ethic
Hinson observed that mindset as he trained her for The Jimmys, through two months of practicing “With You” after school.
“I asked, ‘Have you ever experienced anything as heart-wrenching as that song, where a piece of you died when you lost someone?’ She said, ‘No.’ Yet she worked to connect with the lyrics on that level, the way an actor would on Broadway.”
Northwest doesn’t build musicals around potential stars, partly because so many of its students are potential stars. Nonetheless, Fraker says, she spotted a leading lady for “West Side Story” when she listened to Eva in eighth grade; two years later, she was playing Maria.
“What sets her apart from a lot of kids is her ability as an actress (in non-musicals),” says Fraker. “The same year she did ‘Footloose’ here – which won her the Blumey Award – I directed a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that went to N.C. Theatre Conference, where she won best actress as Juliet. She has that quality where you can’t take your eyes off (her) onstage.”
That’s presumably what the press-shy Mackintosh, who has given almost no public interviews for years, saw in Eva. (He reportedly called her “another Lea Salonga,” who won the Tony for this role in 1991.) But what if he hadn’t?
“Well, I never had a professional audition before,” she says. “That (alone) was a a huge confidence booster, which you need to be an actor. So I’m very lucky to have been in that moment.
“My parents knew this was what I wanted to do. They had (accepted) the idea that I might not want to go to college and spend tens of thousands of dollars to learn the repertoire every other musical student has. I told my father that at 14. I said, “What if I want to go to New York after high school and be a waitress and audition and scrape along until I get something?’ ”
Young body, old head
In the end, her youth turned out to be an advantage in London. Stamina allowed her to do six shows a week, instead of the four that had originally been discussed. Naivete made her soak up everything she could about her craft.
“I’m like a sponge,” she says. “Here in London, the arts community is a family. People speak to each other and listen and observe, and that has made me grow faster. I wasn’t used to having 1,200 people look at me with expectations, so there was stress. I had to learn from my mistakes. But in years to come, that’ll make me a tougher actress and a stronger person.
“I’m stubborn, too. I know when I’m wrong, but I also know when I’m right. When it came to natural instincts about what this character would do – when something came from my gut – I went with it. The combination of the two, my instinct and the direction I got, kept me balanced.”
Her aunt says “hardly anything fazes her. Mentally, she’s tough as nails. Yet when she does come home for family celebrations, she’s the same Eva: Still goofy, silly, always knowing how to have a good time and make life fun.”
But “home” doesn’t mean what it once did. The farther Eva flies into the highest orbits of show business, the more she’s uprooted from her home town, except for visits back to the folks.
She lives in Seven Dials, a renovated and mostly commercial neighborhood in the upscale Covent Garden district. While any actor has to move to stay busy – she’ll probably spend all of 2017 in New York – she feels settled just now in one of the two centers of the English-speaking theatrical universe.
“People from Charlotte ask, ‘When are you moving back home?’ But this isn’t a summer camp,” she says. “This is where I have made these amazing friends, where my first job was. To me, this feels like home.”
All about Eva
▪ The actress – whose full name is Eva Maria Noblezada – has ethnic roots in Mexico and the Philippine Islands.
▪ She’ll turn 20 in March.
▪ Her Twitter account, which has 12,500 followers, seems to be run by an obsessed foodie – sorry, dessertie: “I can eat desserts all day. The only reason I have a gym membership is that I eat so many macaroons.”
▪ She’s having a serious relationship with British actor Leo Roberts: “I didn’t expect to move to another country and find a soul mate like Leo. He understands my schedule and me, and he’s the most loving, loyal, passionate and talented person I have met.”
▪ Where you can see her in Charlotte: “A Symphonic Valentine” Pops concerts with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Feb. 12 and 13 at 8 p.m. and an “It’s a Small World” Lollipops concert for kids Saturday at 11 a.m. Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org. ▪ Where you can see her as Kim in “Miss Saigon:” Through Feb. 27 in the West End of London, then on Broadway as of spring 2017. ▪ Where you can see her as Eponine in “Les Miserables:” In London as of April 4.
▪ And here’s the Jimmy Awards rendition of “With You” that convinced Cameron Mackintosh to audition her for “Miss Saigon:” youtube.com.