Bright star: we chat with Stratford’s new Evita

Bright star: we chat with Stratford’s new Evita

Chilina Kennedy, Stratford’s new musical leading lady, kick-starts the season with Evita, the festival’s first rock opera

Chil factor: Kennedy takes a break backstage between rehearsals at Stratford (Image: Derek Shapton)

The first time Chilina Kennedy auditioned for Maria in West Side Story at the Stratford festival, she was uncharacteristically calm. Why stress over an audition when you have no shot at the part, she asks. (I’d usually dismiss this kind of rhetorical question as the false modesty of an actress, but when she says it, there’s not a hint of guile in her big, brown eyes.) Kennedy was wrong about her chances. Stratford called back—five times. “When I went to my fifth audition, that’s when I got really nervous,” she laughs. Kennedy landed the role, and her stint as Maria last season wowed critics, making her a no-brainer to play the eponymous lead in this year’s big musical production, Evita. In just one season, Kennedy went from a relative unknown to Stratford’s star—the unwitting solution to many of the festival’s recent problems.

When the 2009 season began, the company was beleaguered by the minor scandals and money-making schemes that are the stuff of backstage musical comedies. Thanks to the recession, the company was struggling through its first deficit in 15 years, and pre-sale figures were bleak. Organizers cut three shows from the season and then took the unprecedented step of putting 30 performances on hold. A memo from the chair circulated among the board of governors, imploring them to open their wallets. Adding to the upheaval, artistic director Des McAnuff reduced the number of Shakespeare plays and decided not to renew Stratford’s contract with Cynthia Dale, the company’s go-to song-and-dance dynamo since 1998. In other words, Stratford had to navigate the financial crisis without a musical headliner to drive ticket sales.

That is, until Kennedy took the stage in the season’s marquee musicals. Huge audiences helped dissolve debts and silence doubters. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in which Kennedy delivered a hilariously ditzy performance as Philia, impressed David Mirvish so much he picked up the play for his 2010–11 season. But it was her turn in West Side Story that proved she has the charisma to carry a show. Far from an innocent ingenue in the Natalie Wood tradition, Kennedy’s Maria was feisty, funny and sensual. Her smouldering chemistry with Paul Nolan’s Tony brought life to a relationship that often comes off as flat.

Kennedy’s bio is something of a fairy tale success story. She was an only child and an army brat who moved between Canada, England and Australia. Lacking any real stability, she threw herself into performing with all the discipline you’d expect from a brigadier general’s daughter: dance lessons at age four, singing classes as a teenager, and eventually a degree from the Sheridan Music Theatre Program in Oakville. Graduation was followed by a series of increasingly desirable roles: Sophie in a U.S. tour of Mamma Mia!, a chorus part in The Lord of the Rings (at just five foot three, she played a hobbit and strapped on stilts to sing in the elf chorus), Anne in Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown Festival and three critically lauded seasons at Shaw.

In just one season, Chilina Kennedy went from a relative unknown to Stratford’s
song-and-dance star—and the unwitting solution to many of the festival’s recent problems

Kennedy seems simultaneously surprised by her success and afraid of jinxing it, consciously forcing herself to relax and enjoy the moment. “I was such a type-A personality as a kid that eventually I had to just chill out,” she says. A few years ago, she bought a condo in Toronto but set foot in it only once before selling it. Now 32, she may finally be ready to put down roots. She recently purchased a house in Stratford and is settling in with Molly, her Portuguese water dog, and Dolly, her terrier. She says, somewhat unconvincingly, that she’s not worried about playing Eva Perón, an icon channelled memorably onstage by a host of Broadway legends (and less memorably on film by Madonna, who vogued her way through Argentine history).

As she continues to talk about her preparation for the role—listing the release exercises she does after rehearsal each day, her strict eat-every-three-hours diet, and a jam-packed research trip to study Perón’s Argentina—she sounds far from relaxed. Even her downtime is regimented. She refuses to do anything whatsoever on Sundays. “I’m a bit Nazi-ish about it,” she explains.

Evita will be Stratford’s first rock opera, and its success, both commercial and artistic, rests heavily on Kennedy’s performance. The ever-ambitious McAnuff hopes it will pave the way for new mainstream projects, including an original musical—big plans that require big talents like Kennedy’s.