This week, the first graduating class of the new four-year degree program in musical theatre at Sheridan College was in Oakville, performing in an original musical called Brantwood.
With one exception.
Emily Lukasik was otherwise occupied that night, as she has been since February, with her energetic and captivating performance as Reza in the all-Canadian production of Once at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre.
“I went to see a dress rehearsal of Brantwood the other night and it totally blew me away,” says the Hamilton-born Lukasik, 21. “I was so proud of all my guinea pig family.” She giggles. “That’s what we call each other, because we’re the first class in this new program.”
Though Lukasik had to miss her last official term at Sheridan, she’ll still be graduating with her fellow “guinea pigs” thanks to associate dean Michael Rubinoff, who wisely understood that a featured role in a Mirvish production was the proverbial offer she couldn’t refuse.
“She is a remarkable student with an exceptional level of talent and kindness,” said Rubinoff. “She is mature beyond her years, giving performances during her time at Sheridan that were soul-stirring.”
Lukasik blushes at receiving such praise. “I’m just so happy everything has worked out. I’m so blessed,” she says, shaking her head.
Her blessings started early, with a family who loved music and a father who led school choirs. She started playing the violin that she attacks with such skill in Once when she was only 3-1/2, and from her early youth the music of Broadway was never far away.
“Like every kid with the Broadway bug I would sing all the songs from Wicked, but Les Misérables came first,” she laughs. “One night when my mother was tucking me in for the night, I grabbed her arm fiercely and said, ‘Before I die, I want to see Les Miz.’”
A huge roar of laughter. “There was nothing wrong with me and my mother wondered why her 6-year-old was making death wishes, but that’s how passionately I felt about it.”
It wasn’t long after that her parents took her to Broadway to see her beloved show. Although she was upset by some parts (“Nobody had told me that Gavroche died!”) her overall feeling was beyond positive.
“It was three-dimensional and larger than life, and I fell in love with it.”
But her adolescent years didn’t pass in a showbiz haze reminiscent of Glee. She sadly admits that her high school in Hamilton “didn’t have much of a theatre scene” and it was only the summer youth program at Theatre Aquarius that kept her interest alive, even though she hadn’t planned on it as a career.
“When you’re a kid, you’re not really thinking of career goals or life dreams. I was just having the time of my life doing shows. It made my heart happy.”
There was a lot of family pressure for her to train as a teacher in English or math, but when she read the course description of the Sheridan program, “my heart just soared,” a feeling that’s continued throughout her time there.
On another family trip to Broadway to see Once, her mother pointed to one of the actresses onstage and said, “That could be you, Emily.”
“That was great, but she wasn’t looking at the woman playing the part I now play,” Lukasik laughs. It was the ex-girlfriend, proper, reserved, a bit withdrawn.
Indeed, that’s how Lukasik might come across to a casual observer, but when she auditioned in Toronto she was told to read for Reza, described as “sexy, funny and larger than life” in the casting breakdown.
It neglected to mention she also has blue hair and wears a micro-mini skirt while rocking out, standing on a bar.
“It was difficult for me to get into it,” Lukasik admits. “I’m nothing like Reza at all. But it’s meant that I’ve gotten to grow as an actor.”
Sheridan grad Chilina Kennedy (now appearing on Broadway as Carole King in Beautiful) is Lukasik’s professional mentor and offered her some valuable advice.
“Chilina said that sometimes when it’s the total opposite of you, it can be so much fun to play and actually easier. She was right!”
Lukasik continues to exult in this musical about love lost and found again.
“It’s about passion and love and life and music. It tells people, ‘Don’t hesitate. Take those risks.’ One friend said she knew a couple whose marriage was on the rocks until they saw Once. Now they’re trying to make things work again.
“It’s amazing to reflect that theatre and art have the power to do it. That’s why we all do what we do. We’re storytellers, telling the story of life.”
Once continues until May 31 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Go to mirvish.com or call 416-872-1212.