Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Peter Fernandes makes an indelible first impression. And for a good many reasons.
The multitalented performer is getting ready to play several roles in The Musical Stage Company’s Toronto premiere of Onegin, a contemporary indie-rock reimagining of Alexander Pushkin’s 19th Century verse narrative and Tchaikovsky’s 1878 opera Eugene Onegin by Canadians Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille. Onegin took Vancouver by storm when it debuted last year at The Arts Club Theatre Company. It sold out houses, was extended twice, and won 10 Jessie Awards.
“I had heard a lot about the Vancouver production of Onegin prior to finding out Musical Stage Company was programming it, and the piece sounded so exciting,” Fernandes enthuses of his immediate attraction to the project. After listening to the soundtrack, he admits to “falling in love with the music” – and has yet to stop humming the tunes. “I’m drawn to ensemble-driven shows and theatrical storytelling,” he admits, “both of which this musical demands.” The Toronto production features an almost entirely new ensemble and will be directed by Gladstone with musical supervision by Ville. It should be equally momentous.
Pushkin’s sweeping story of the lovelorn Tatyana and the dandy Eugene Onegin who rejects her, is considered a classic of Russian literature. It has been translated into multiple languages, and has inspired artistic interpretations that, besides Tchaikovsky’s opera, include 7 films, 3 ballets and one play. Clearly, there is much to mine from the lavish source work. Gladstone and Hille’s interpretation has been recognized not only for its sumptuous score, but also its deep emotional core and the timeless universality of the themes it explores. “I’ve always thought that people start singing in musicals because their intent and emotions are too great to express in speech,” Fernandes muses, “and the story of Onegin is rich with these characters that are overflowing with feeling, whether it be love, longing, isolation (or) despair.” So rich, in fact, that the musical is almost entirely in song.
Still, in Fernandes’ estimation, there are further reasons why Puskin’s work lends itself so well to music theatre in our present time. “There’s a real slice of Pushkin’s self in the poem,” he observes, “and you can feel, even through this heightened storytelling, that there’s something very true at its core, which is the reason why we can look back at this story of Russia in the 1800s and still invest in it today.” That said, Fernandes acknowledges that it’s no easy feat for the musical’s creators to take a classic and envision it anew for contemporary audiences: “Veda and Amiel have done an amazing job of mining this already fascinating text and infusing it with the contemporary, creating this incredibly moving and unique piece, perfectly married to music.”
Wary of spoiling the viewing experience, he explains only that Onegin is “about unrequited love.” However, he does share a specific moment that especially moves him: “There’s a point near the end of the piece where Onegin and Tatyana have this incredible duet that I can’t get enough of.” Describing the moment as filled with anger, uncertainty and passion, he hints at motifs both thematic and musical. Before cutting to the chase: “Plus, Hailey (Gillis) and Daren (A. Herbert) are extraordinarily talented performers,” he notes, “and sound gorgeous singing together.”
So far, while expressing his enthusiasm for this production of Onegin, he has said little about the roles or song he himself will perform…What to infer from this omission? That he is modest? Or that he has a generous spirit? Certainly, both seem true, given the attitudes he expresses on other performers and other works. For instance, he deems Legally Blonde an underrated musical: “people don’t give it enough credit. The music is fantastic, it requires skilled dancers and singers, and there’s some very inventive storytelling.” Plus, he adds, “it’s also really funny.” He advises people to find the filmed Broadway production that aired on TV, and “give it another shot.” And when I ask which question I should have asked but didn’t, he supplies one focused on his fellow performers: “What’s it like working with this cast?” His response is hardly surprising: “They are all so generous and talented,” he enthuses, “and I feel lucky getting to work with people I had never met before, but have always wanted to work with, and people who I’ve known for years.”
Clearly collegial, Fernandes fully commits to his own roles and esteems those of his fellow cast. Talent aside (he has an excess), his appeal lies in his versatility and compelling stage presence. His performances are a delight to watch. Since graduating from the BFA Acting program at the University of Alberta and subsequently the Soulpepper Academy, he has had a wide range of experiences performing new and classic works, each with its “own exciting challenges.” He played several characters in The Musical Stage Company-Obsidian Theatre’s acclaimed co-production of Passing Strange, the genre-pushing 2012 coming-of-age rock musical by indie rocker Stew and Heidi Rodewald. He describes this experience as “finally the chance to perform in my favourite musical and bring a part of myself to something I already knew.”
Unlike Passing Strange, which Fernandes came to after it was fully developed, he has also supported the development of musicals from their inception – most notably, Soulpepper’s runaway hit Spoon River and musical-in-development Rose (both of which also feature his Onegin co-star Hailey Gillis). These experiences have allowed for and invited his creative input “because they are pieces that are constantly developing and changing.” Spoon River Anthology is Edgar Lee Masters’ elegy for a small town, the fictional Spoon River, Illinois, from the point of view of its dead inhabitants. In addition to playing a series of characters, Fernandes’ gender-bending turn as the Widow MacFarlane in Spoon River remains a much-talked-about scene-stealer!
Rose is also a literary adaptation but tonally and thematically distinct. Based on Gertrude Stein’s picture book The World Is Round, it is a symbolic narrative that questions the relationship between words and existence, and explores the 9-year-old title character’s search for identity. Her 10-year-old friend Willie (played by Fernandes) has no such unease, and instead has self-assurance, conviction and cheekiness to spare. In the premiere concert presentation of Rose last December, Fernandes portrayed the 10-year-old Willie with an impish, exuberant swagger at once poignant and hilarious. Though Rose will no doubt continue to evolve, even in this early stage, Fernandes’ portrayal strikes a just-right chord with audiences.
Whatever the work, Fernandes seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Equally at home with musicals and plays, his star is rising, and there is much more that he wants to explore. Ideally, in the near future, he will live his dream of playing the Emcee in the Kander-and-Ebb classic Cabaret: “I think it’s a beautiful piece, and the Emcee is a role that I’d be very interested in tackling at some point in my career.” More immediately, following the run of Onegin, he will perform a Shakespearen double-bill: Oswald, Duke of Burgundy in King Lear and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, performed in repertory in Canadian Stage’s annual Shakespeare in High Park, where he will continue to make his distinctive mark.
In the first line of this piece, I alluded to Fernandes making an indelible first impression. For audiences unfamiliar with his work, this is the effect of seeing Fernandes perform for the first time. But for me, I have the same experience in this, our first interview. As I review the notes, I am struck by his full and well-considered responses. Likely, it is this level of commitment, preparedness and engagement that makes him so impressive on stage. And his reticence about his own performance in Onegin? Perhaps this is based on a tacit desire to let his work speak for him. If his past performances are anything to go by, this discretion is wise: his work in Onegin will speak volumes.
“There’s nothing I won’t try to sing hahaha. But there are songs that are reserved for when I’m home alone, far from anyone’s ears. I just don’t have those notes.”
Sing along with Peter: “The Ladies who Lunch” from Company by Stephen Sondheim; performed by Elaine Stritch
“Defying Gravity” from Wicked by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman; performed by Idina Menzel
News You Can Use
What: Onegin by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille
Who: Audiences 10 years of age and up
When: On stage until June 4, 2017
Where: Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON
For Information and Tickets: CanadianStage.com and 416.368.3110
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya