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VALLEY WEEKEND

After 15 Years, Local Actress Still Has a Passion for 'Evita'

Valerie Perri says she's made a career of performing the role of charismatic Eva Peron. She appears on stage at Civic Arts Plaza and the Alex Theatre.

May 02, 1996|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's not every 3-year-old who, when hearing the words "Don't Cry For Me . . .," will respond "Argentina." But Ben and Jack Lipson are not typical 3-year-olds.

They are the twin sons of Valerie Perri, who has spent much of the past 15 years performing the lead role in "Evita," the Tony Award-winning musical. The show is based on the controversial life of Eva Peron, the power-hungry, calculating yet boundlessly charismatic first lady of Argentina, who rose to power in the 1940s while wife of dictator Juan Peron.

Given that the twins' mother has dedicated so much time to portraying Eva Peron, it is not surprising that Ben and Jack can recite a line or two from the production's most recognizable song.

The boys will have a chance to sing along with mom when Perri again takes the lead in the Theater League production of "Evita," running through Sunday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and Tuesday through May 12 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

"Valerie brings so much of the spunk of Eva and the fire into the role," said Bonnie Ward, who, with her husband Don, is co-directing the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaboration. "A really good Eva has to have a passion for the person. It is built into Valerie's body. She really truly becomes Eva."

Perri, a resident of Sherman Oaks, first tackled the role of Eva in 1981, performing at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, for which she won a Dramalogue Award. She went on to become a member of the national touring company of "Evita" later that year, and more recently, was back on tour with the company in 1992.

She embarked on the last trip shortly after giving birth to the twins. Husband Cliff Lipson, the children and a nanny traveled with her.

Along with the two national tours, Perri has starred in five regional productions of "Evita."

"I guess you could say I made a career of it," she said.

But Perri's credits beyond "Evita" are also fairly extensive, spanning theater, film ("Grease") and television (including the soap opera "Another World").

The focal point of her career, however, has been theater. Dividing her time between New York and Los Angeles over the years, Perri has performed in productions such as "Diamonds," "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," "On the Swing Shift," "Angry Housewives," "Gypsy" (as the title character), "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin," which won an L.A. Drama Critics Award for best ensemble.

Despite the long list, it is the starring role in "Evita" that keeps luring Perri. It's a role that takes the title character from an impoverished girl of 15 to a position of national power at age 27, and, ultimately, to death from cancer at age 33.

"It's sort of like going on a roller-coaster ride physically and emotionally," Perri said. "By the end of the final curtain I'm just completely drained. That's a very satisfying experience."

Perri said the role of Peron allows her to utilize multiple stage talents.

"It taps into all of my assets of being a singer, a dancer and an actor," she said. "This is not your regular musical theater. This is definitely a piece where, you could say, it takes equal amounts of acting and singing to make it effective."

Portraying someone's life from youth to adulthood is an incredible opportunity, Perri said. And in the case of Peron, it means tackling a multidimensional character.

"I'd say she was ambitious, driven, passionate, persistent, calculating, manipulative, very spirited and a woman who succeeded against all odds," Perri said.

Perri was 22, and had just graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in theater arts when the aspiring actress, a native of Dallas, Pa., first landed the "Evita" lead.

"I had an agent who submitted me for the role" of Eva Peron, she said. "The casting agent said maybe I was too young for the part, maybe I could play the mistress. He told my agent, 'Have her learn both parts.' "

Perri did, but it proved unnecessary. She auditioned for director Harold Prince and got the lead doing matinees at the Shubert. At the same time, the show was running on Broadway starring Patti LuPone, who had won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical.

Before long Perri was in Chicago for her first show as lead in the national touring company. "I was scared to death," she said. "It was so overwhelming to me. Even today, right before I start rehearsals for a show, I listen to the music and ask, 'Do I really do that?' "

It was in Chicago that Perri teamed with John Herrera, her co-star and onstage antagonist, Che. Herrera, who received a Tony nomination for his role as Neville in the "Mystery of Edwin Drood," played Che opposite LuPone on Broadway. He is reprising his role in Thousand Oaks and Glendale.

The local shows also reunite Perri with David Wasson, who plays Juan Peron, as he did on the 1992 national tour.

"There's a very good chemistry onstage between us and a complete understanding of both of our characters," Wasson said of his work with Perri.

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