— Cast of Onegin. Photo: David Cooper.
The first act of Onegin might be the best hour of theatre you’ll see all year.
In fact the entire two-act, fully sung musical, created by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille from the 19th century verse novel by Pushkin and the Tchaikovsky opera based on it, is an extraordinary showcase of theatrical intelligence, talent and joie de vivre, even if the story itself is something of a Russian romantic downer. That this is the premiere production of a new work makes it all the more impressive. I guarantee this show will have a long life beyond Vancouver and the Arts Club.
Gladstone and Hille are two-thirds of the team, along with Bill Richardson, responsible for the brilliant Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Musical, that premiered at the Arts Club in 2012 and is making its way off-Broadway this year. Onegin shares that show’s attractive quirkiness—its sweet theatrical self-consciousness and direct appeal to the audience. For instance, when shy Tatyana (Meg Roe) wants to send a love letter to the handsome, roguish Onegin (Alessandro Juliani), audience members happily get to pass it along to its destination.
Hille and Gladstone’s terrific original music and Hille’s musical direction are also key features of this show, the music performed live here by herself on piano, Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar, and Marina Hasselberg on evocative cello. (Most of the cast members also pick up an instrument from time to time.) Gladstone and Hille share credit for the clever, economical adaptation and often witty lyrics, and Gladstone directs with a great sense of fun. They’ve also brought together a tremendous cast and design team.
Josh Epstein plays the romantic poet Lensky, who is engaged to Olga (Lauren Jackson), the delicious younger daughter of Madame Larin (Catriona Murphy), somewhere near St. Petersburg circa 1820. Lensky’s melancholy, decadent friend Onegin shows up, rejecting the affections of Olga’s sister Tatyana, who wants a conventional marriage (“I am not made for this,” Onegin sings to her with characteristic honesty), and instead flirting with Olga at Tatyana’s name-day party.
Credit Tracey Power for the fabulous choreography, and Juliani and Jackson for the performance, of one of the hottest pas de deux you’ll ever see, so hot it drives Lensky to challenge his friend Onegin to a duel. The duel and its aftermath take up act two, which never quite matches the novelty and intensity of the remarkable first act.
The performances are all outstanding. Meg Roe, a superb actor and director who can apparently do anything, sings like a dream. She and real-life husband Juliani have very strong scenes together, as do Juliani and Epstein who both get to introduce their characters to the audience in clever songs (“a charming, roguish young dandy is who I am,” sings Onegin). This is a theatrical privilege the underwritten women (especially Jackson and Murphy’s characters) don’t have. Andrew Wheeler and Andrew McNee round out the cast in multiple roles, McNee bringing the house down in a hilarious number as a French chanteur.
Showcasing the versatility of the black box Goldcorp Stage at the Arts Club’s new BMO Theatre Centre, director Gladstone sits the audience on three sides of Drew Facey’s open stage set. John Webber provides a rich array of lighting textures and Jacqueline Firkins (my colleague in the UBC Theatre program) has designed a series of gorgeous period costumes—Olga’s yellow dress is a particular knockout.
This is an absolutely terrific, hugely entertaining show that will only get better. There’s one lame song in the first act that should be replaced, the second act (which jumps ahead six years) definitely needs work, and the women’s roles ought to be strengthened. But don’t miss this premiere. Years from now you’ll be able to say you saw it here first, before it became a classic.