Evita actress has “star quality”

Story by Casey Lessard

Sometimes the Huron Country Playhouse saves the best for last, and this year is one of those times. Evita, playing now until August 29, is top quality theatre thanks to excellent hiring decisions that include a star director, a perfect Evita, and great talent all around.
Michael Lichtefeld, who was a performer in the original Broadway cast of Evita, directs and choreographs the Playhouse version to great effect.
“I’m not recreating what we did on Broadway,” Lichtefeld says, “but you can’t do a show for two years and not be influenced by what you did. I’m trying to make it my own and make it fresh for now.”
For Lichtefeld, a key part of making it fresh is the star he discovered after a chance audition.
“I think we’ve found a Canadian star in Dena Chiarcossi,” he says. “She’s exactly what I was looking for because I was looking for someone young and on the verge of a breakthrough. For me, she’s spectacular in the show. The whole cast is terrific.”
Chiarcossi planned to audition for a secondary role, Juan Perón’s mistress.
“I asked my agent if I could audition to play the part,” she says, “but they said it was already cast, but they’re looking for an Eva. I said, all right, I’ll try.”
“She’s an incredible actress and has an amazing voice,” Lichtefeld says. “I asked her at the audition if she could dance and she said ‘a little.’ Well, she dances a lot more than just ‘a little.’ She’s quite a find for me, and she knocked my socks off.”
The show opens with Eva Perón’s 1952 death at age 33, and flashes back to show her life from age 15 to her rise to power with her husband Juan Perón, who was Argentina’s president from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1973 to 1974. During her time at Casa Rosada (the presidential residence), Eva Perón championed women’s rights and the rights of workers.
“I’ve always been on her side,” Lichtefeld says. “There’s something interesting about a woman, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, who worked her way up through a male-dominated society to become as powerful as she did. At the end, it went to her head. But look at how many young stars spend all their money or get burned out at the end.
“She’s kind of an anti-hero. She’s a tough character and you’re either going to love her or be elated that she dies in the end.”
Chiarcossi believes the script makes Evita (or Little Eva) look worse than she was.
“Eva Perón was for the people,” she says. “The reason she wanted power and jewels and money was to show the upper class and middle class that they’re not the only ones entitled to this. She, being lower class, wanted to show the people of Argentina that they too could have all of those riches. That’s what I believe. The script is a little different. It manipulates that a little. It shows her more on the arrogant and greedy side.”
This is the challenge for viewers: is Evita (the character) good or bad?
“For me, it’s about how power can corrupt,” Lichtefeld says. “She started off with ambitions to be greater than what fate had dealt her at the beginning. She worked her way up to be the first lady of Argentina. She did some great stuff but also some really bad stuff.
“She slept her way to the top. But she got the vote for women in Argentina, and that itself is a big deal.”
As a counterpoint, Stephen Patterson plays narrator Che Guevara, who never met Evita.
“I tried to find out why they chose him,” says Patterson, who plays a central role in the success (once again – he starred in Miss Saigon and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) of this Playhouse presentation. “What would his problems be with Perónism? A revolutionary acts from the heart. She might have believed she was there for the people, but Che would likely say that she wasn’t.”
With strong singing, dancing and acting, perfectly simple set pieces, and wonderful orchestration, Evita is a perfect reason to spend a couple of hours in the Playhouse theatre on a hot August afternoon or evening.
“It’s controversial, which makes good theatre and makes you think,” Patterson says. “If you can leave the theatre and think about something, we’ve done our job.”