Onegin, a new musical that was a huge hit at the Arts Club in Vancouver last season, has landed in Toronto with so much critical praise and so many awards from its run on the West Coast that creators Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone probably had to pay for excess luggage to get it here. But the reputation that precedes their show is baggage of another kind, too.
While the musical has a great score and tells a classic story in a modern way, a viewer of the somewhat underwhelming new production for the Musical Stage Company (formerly known as Acting Up Stage Company) will be left wondering if some of its romance and charm has been lost by the airline while crossing the Rockies. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 novel in verse (and the 1879 opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), Onegin takes us into 19th-century Russia with one foot – while keeping the other firmly in the 21st century. As directed by Gladstone, it plays out like a highly literate rock concert, with a three-piece band on stage and characters occasionally grabbing microphones or an electric guitar in the middle of a song or scene.
Evgeny Onegin (Daren A. Herbert), a vain and cynical young man from Saint Petersburg, inherits his uncle’s estate in the country. Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein), an eager young poet, attempts to cheer him up by introducing him to the girls next door: Olga (Elena Juatco), his betrothed, and her older sister, Tatyana (Hailey Gillis), a shy, sheltered type who immediately recognizes the feelings she’s read about in novels when she first lays eyes on the title character.
After Onegin rejects Tatyana in a world-weary way, Lensky invites him to her name-day celebration anyway – and gradually small moments of inconsiderate behaviour build up to a big break between friends and lovers. It comes to a head in what, oddly, has become a familiar moment on Broadway right now: A duel. (See: Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.)
In Russia, Eugene Onegin holds the status that Hamlet does in the English-speaking world, with Pushkin being a figure who’s like that country’s Shakespeare and Marlowe wrapped into one – credited with developing the Russian language as we know it, and having died romantically from a duel.
Hille and Gladstone’s luscious, indie-rock score does full justice to the revered material. They’ve written a half-dozen songs that are hummable on their own, while the entire score builds upon itself, recurring references leading to the creation of its own intricate language that gains in resonance and power.
There are a pair of superb performances in this Toronto production as well. Epstein, an actor with a clarion voice and the only cast member here who was also in the Arts Club premiere, is marvelous as Lensky, who is also a narrator of sorts for the show. He nails the show’s tricky style, a mix of winky metatheatricality and extreme sincerity. Gillis, meanwhile, delivers an immediately lovable, emotionally direct and musically virtuosic performance as Tatyana. In a first-act song called Let Me Die, in which she pens a fateful letter to Onegin, she sings and acts her way through a complex stew of feelings with fervour.
It’s a real show-stopper – or it is, until an electric guitar is strapped onto her near the end of the song, undercutting the connection she’d just formed with the audience after the musical’s overly busy beginning.
While I didn’t see the original production, I think there’s a hint in that as to why Onegin might not be hitting the mark in its Toronto production in the same way it did in Vancouver. In reviewing it last year on the West Coast, The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman described a similar moment involving the actress who originated the role of Tatyana, Meg Roe, as unforgettable.
Gladstone directed both productions – but he’s working with different actors, a different choreographer and different designers here, and it often felt like performers were being put into positions or adopting characterizations that didn’t feel organic to them.
For instance, Peter Fernandes, one of the most reliably funny musical-theatre actors in Toronto, made his way through a song called Queen of Tonight with a forced French accent and relentless mugging that made the gorgeous tune a fail as either music or comedy.
One also gets the impression that Gladstone has tried to transfer too much of his original staging from a thrust stage out west to an (acoustically problematic) brick box here on a beautiful but cramped new set with different sightlines. The new choreography by Linda Garneau feels constrained and confusing – making it hard to get swept up in the story’s romance.
It seems telling that Epstein, the sole carry-over from Vancouver, seems most at ease. As Onegin, Herbert seems only intermittently comfortable with his character – too jokey and self-deprecating at the start, and only really sinking into the complexity of his character at the end.
There’s much to admire in Onegin – and fans of musical theatre, including Hille and Gladstone’s A Craigslist Cantata, won’t want to miss the opportunity to hear a score of this calibre in Toronto. But I wish I could have seen the Vancouver production – or a new director had been given the opportunity to bring a fully original vision to this one.
Onegin continues to June 4 (musicalstagecompany.com).Report Typo/Error