Members of the cast of Onegin. Photo by David Cooper.
Members of the cast of Onegin. Photo by David Cooper.

The new musical Onegin, currently on stage at the Arts Club BMO Centre, is as near perfect as a show can be.

Based on Alexander Pushkin’s 19th century novel Eugene Onegin, and taking inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s opera, this is one of those sweeping love stories that the Russians seem to do so well. Maybe it is the frigid Siberian-style winters, a theme that not so coincidentally is weaved through the musical, but there is enough passion generated in Onegin to heat even the coldest of country estates.

Don’t let its classic literature and musical roots scare you though, for under the skilled hands of co-creators Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, this Onegin is filled with as much quirky fun as serious drama.

Setting the tone out of the gates, an invocation to God takes an immediate turn as the assembled cast sings: “Dear father up in heaven, look down upon us smiling, let this play be goddamn good. Let this play begin”.  And so it goes with similar twists, both large and small, that keeps the story as engaging as it is surprising.

Under the direction of Gladstone, Onegin is wildly creative. From drinking games, to the audience helping pass letters between the would-be lovers, Gladstone breaks down the fourth wall at every opportunity. The satisfying result effectively brings the audience in as participants, as much as observers to this grand love story.

What really makes Onegin sing though is in the clarity of its story as its central narrative is never overshadowed by its inventiveness; there is not a single wasted moment over its two acts.

The music is as varied as its staging.  With Hille on piano, accompanied by Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar and Marina Hasselberg on cello, the music is a mash-up of styles. Exquisitely played by the trio of musicians, supplemented by the cast, there is an underlying tone that permeates through the music, evocative of its 19th century Russian setting. It is all coupled with a wholly modern and idiosyncratic sensibility that has become somewhat of a trademark for this writing duo (along with Bill Richardson they are also the writers of the equally quirky A Craigslist Cantata which will hopefully see an off-Broadway production soon).

To make it all work requires a company up to its challenges. What my theatre companion last night referred to as a ‘vortex of talent’, the entire cast delivers as they move seamlessly between the reality of Onegin’s love story and this adaptation’s glorious eccentricities.

While real-life husband and wife Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani bring a fully realized emotional connection to the roles of Tatyana and Onegin, it is Josh Epstein, as the doomed poet Lensky, who gives the star turn. Coupled with Lauren Jackson as his fiancee Olga, the two are mesmerizing both together and apart.

The two Andrews (Wheeler and McNee) play an array of ancillary characters with skill. As French entertainer Triquet, McNee once again gets to show off his comedic chops. Caitriona Murphy flits in-and-out of the action as mother to Tatyana and Olga, and other characters.

Set designer Drew Facey provides a gorgeous stage for this cast to play. Chandeliers hanging from the ceiling (reminiscent of A Craigslist Cantata) and dark velvet drapes bring an old-world elegance that is mixed with piles of modern and older books on the stage’s four corners.  Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are equally as gorgeous, with a similar mix of contemporary and period attire. It is all handsomely lit by John Webber.

A beautiful, quirky and emotion-filled love story, if you see only one show this year make it Onegin. A relatively short run, this one is sure to sell-out. You should get your tickets now.

Onegin by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. Musical direction by Veda Hille. On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Ave, Vancouver) until April 17. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

(Editor’s note: this review was updated to reflect the new close date for the show which has been extended until April 17)

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