By her own admission, Erica Peck is a rough-around-the-edges sort of woman.
As a child singer growing up in Mississauga, she competed frequently in festivals, but never quite seemed to adapt to the preferred mould of judges and teachers. Later, studying musical theatre at Sheridan College, she found herself straining against a system that expected her to curtail her extracurricular life in music, to focus exclusively on school.
"I always felt teachers and judges didn't really get me," she said in a recent interview. "Part of it was technique and part was that I never fit the formula. But people liked me. It took a while to figure all that out and it was discouraging."
Thus, when she auditioned for and was subsequently offered the lead role in the Mirvish organization's production of We Will Rock You in 2007, Peck didn't hesitate "for a bloody second. … Sheridan [College]wasn't the best fit for me. So when I had a chance to sing Queen and dress in chains and leather and wear big hair, it was like, 'I'm outta here.'"
Now, after appearing in the Queen-based musical for 788 performances and a summer spent recharging her batteries, Peck is about to open in Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, The Boys in the Photograph .
The show is a major reworking of The Beautiful Game , which was a year-long hit in London's West End almost a decade ago. Set in 1969 and the early seventies, it's built around a boys' soccer team in Belfast, and the terrible toll that Northern Ireland's sectarian strife takes on them.
Despite its previous commercial success, Elton felt the ending was too dark for a musical and retooled it to provide a happy ending.
Peck says the music is recognizably Lloyd Webber's, but to some extent "breaks the mould of what people might expect. Some of the songs are among the best pieces of music he has written."
Under its new title, The Boys was workshopped at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and enjoyed a successful month-long run at the Manitoba Theatre Centre this spring, with standing ovations every night. It was that response that persuaded Mirvish Productions to exercise an option and offer it as part of its annual subscription season.
Peck, 23, plays Mary McGuire, girlfriend of one of the promising soccer lads, John Kelly (Tony LePage). Although a Catholic, she stands at a certain remove from the violent religious convictions that grip the boys.
Director Elton, who also wrote the book, called Peck "a fabulous discovery. She's had a magical run, with We Will Rock You and now Boys , but she has earned every step of it. She's an exquisite soprano."
When she auditioned for the new role, Elton said, he wasn't certain whether Peck would be able to handle either the tremendous vocal range the score requires or the demanding dramatic component of the character. "And she just nailed it. I threw my fist in the air afterward and said, 'we've just found our Mary.'" Elton says the reception the show receives here will determine whether it enjoys an extended life in the United States and in London.
During her summer off, Peck made trips to Niagara Falls and Moncton with her boyfriend, Robin Black, lead singer of the Intergalactic Rock Stars and now, at 40, a professional mixed martial arts fighter.
Her vocal chords, she says, were grateful for the rest. " We Will Rock You was very challenging, vocally," she says. "The volume and power required, even for speaking, was demanding. There was never a point where you felt you were done and could relax. I mean, Queen didn't sing Queen eight times a week."
Peck says her material in The Boys is equally challenging, but allows her to use more of her extensive training in classical singing. "I had a huge fear of being typecast as a rock 'n' roll singer. Don't get me wrong. I love rock 'n' roll, but I've been singing classical since I was 6."
An only child, Peck says she was encouraged by her parents to find her passion and widely exposed to art, swimming and music as a child. She saw the original Toronto production of The Phantom of the Opera and was immediately hooked.
"I just threw myself into it, church choirs, a gospel choir, school musicals. I took every and any opportunity to sing and went to open-call auditions just to get the experience." Her middle-class parents were encouraging, but weren't remotely the classic stage parents. "I wasn't groomed, as they say, and maybe that's why I was always a poor fit in the system."
Peck understands that, so far at least, she's been among the fortunate few, never having to wait tables or take other low-paying jobs, to pay the rent. That luck, she understands, may not always hold. One day, perhaps, she'd like to try making it in New York, even though it would mean, "to some extent starting over and having to prove myself."
Several heavyweight New York producers will be flying to Toronto to see The Boys . If the show's a hit here, seeing Erica Peck's name in lights on Broadway may not be such a remote dream after all.
The Boys in the Photograph runs until Nov. 1 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.