The stage was colored in dark shades of purple and blue, like an icy-clear sky on a winter’s night. The song started slowly with soft notes nestled in the warm comfort of Fernando Varela’s voice, as he sang:
See the stone set in your eyes
See the thorn twist in your side
I’ll wait for you
The guitar was gentle, the drum beat muffled and keyboards caressed the vocal. Varela sat on a stool, in the middle of the darkened stage, looking down maybe into his heart, as he sang:
Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait
And I wait without you
What is the undefinable quality that makes a singer reach the heights of stardom? On stage, Tuesday night at the New Covenant United Methodist Church a sell-out crowd discovered the answer. Varela gave it to them, with every lyric, every movement and every emotion he poured into the U2 standard, as he sang:
With or without you
With or without you
I remember seeing U2 sing that song during a 1980s’ concert. I always thought that those lyrics and that music belonged to Bono and U2. No one else could ever touch that song, I thought, until Tuesday night at the New Covenant United Methodist Church.
That’s where Fernando Varela made “With or Without You” his own. Like all great singers, he put a personal stamp on a classic song. Varela made it half-opera, half-rock and all heart.
It wasn’t long ago that Varela was singing in Town Squares and clubs in The Villages. Now he is a rising star who just completed a 40-city international tour. So much has changed for this young man over the past two years.
But there are constants about Varela that haven’t changed: the dynamic voice, the engaging personality, the ever-present smile, caring for others and his bond with The Villages.
“We’ve done the same show 40 times and now we’re back in The Villages so we’re going to do something a little different tonight,” Varela said. He will be back at New Covenant Methodist Church on Thursday, Jan 29, at 5 and 8 p.m. A few tickets remain for those shows.
Varela offers so much more than a magnificent tenor voice. On stage, he radiates confidence and emotion in his songs, from classical to pop to Broadway to rock.
Varela knows that in The Villages, “I have to pay tribute to Roy Orbison for you guys.”
He then sang “Only the Lonely,” and the only thing lacking was a pair of Orbison’s sunglasses. Varela followed that with a hard-driving version of “Pretty Woman” that had the church crowd stomping their feet and clapping their hands as if at a revival meeting.
On this night, Varela seemed to morph into Ed Sullivan. Like the old TV host, Varela put together a variety show, featuring musical acts that were both fun and serious.
Susan Williams Varela, Fernando’s wife, joined him on stage early on. “We all know marriage can be difficult,” Fernando said. “This is one of those songs that keeps us together. It means a lot to me and my wife.”
They then teamed for “I Give It All For You,” from the off-Broadway show, “Songs for a New World.” It’s a gentle ballad about love lost and found.
Fernando is a powerful figure on stage, but his wife held her own singing with him. Susan’s soaring soprano vocals, stage presence and elegant beauty complimented her husband. Both were at their best on “The Prayer.”
Another female singer came on for a solo effort. Deanna Dellacioppa was a contestant with Varela on “America’s Got Talent.” She presented a couple of rousing numbers, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” from “Dreamgirls.” Dellacioppa followed that with another roof-raising performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Varela and his wife have been committed to the charity ChildFund International. They showed a brief video during the show of a child they adopted in Ecuador. Fernando said that through his concerts and fund-raising events, over 500 children in Ecuador have been helped. “It has been a blessing for us,” he said. “There is no better feeling than making a difference in the life of a child.”
Speaking of children, on this edition of the Fernando Varela/Ed Sullivan program, a group from Ontario, Canada called the Leahy Family hit the stage and stole the show.
Daddy Doug Leahy played the fiddle, mom Jennifer was on the piano. But it was the kids – Adele, 12; Gregory, 10; Angus, 9; Cecilia, 7; Joseph, 5 and Evelyn, 3, who captured the audience.
It’s the best kids’ act since the Seven Little Foys or maybe the Osmonds. Anyways the little Leahy’s came out tapping and clogging and fiddling. Doug Leahy was part of a famous family band in Canada and now the new group is called: The Next Generation Leahy Family of Fiddlers.
“We love you guys and want you back in The Villages,” one member of the audience yelled. “Don’t worry,” Fernando said, after the family finished tapping and fiddling. “I’m going to bring them back.”
Then, just like Ed Sullivan, Fernando decided to introduce a special guest in the audience. Florence LaRue, of the 5th Dimension, had performed at the church Monday night and will be back for two shows Wednesday at 5 and 8 p.m. “Florence, take a bow,” Fernando said, and the crowd roared with approval.
Next up on stage was Josh Leggett, the handsome and popular singer in The Villages. “He reminds me a lot of me when I was growing up,” Fernando said with a smile. Varela produced Leggett’s current CD, called “Country Roads.”
Leggett came on and did a later Roy Orbison number called, “You Got It,” with a rocking beat.
Fernando dominated the last part of the show. He was in vintage form on “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables.” But Varela just can’t stay from the music of his youth. He’s a big fan of Journey.
That meant a couple of Steve Perry standards, including the melancholy “Open Arms.” Then it was time to rock and Varela shook the stage with the classic-rock anthem, “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Finally, Susan Varela came on stage to close the show with another duet with Fernando, an emotional version of “Time To Say Goodbye” (Con te partiro).
“Fernando and Susan have changed my life; they are such warm and caring people,” said Jean Williams, a longtime fan who drove two hours to see the show. “Fernando is so special. I don’t think you could change anything in his voice to make it better.”
Sue Fitzgerald of the Village of Lynnhaven agreed. “This was an amazing show; I loved Fernando and those kids with the fiddles. Fernando has so much personality and such a great voice. I love his smile.”
It was a night of smiles and kinship for a singer and the community that helped make him a star. Varela delivered a prime time performance. Ed Sullivan would have loved it.