In Vancouver, the hottest ticket in town these days is Onegin, a new musical co-created by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, part of the team that created Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata. With the Tchaikovsky opera and the Pushkin poem before that as its guide, this reimagined Onegin is set in some sort of 2016-feeling 19th-century Russia. This speaks to the theme of the show: Love is a universal, timeless puzzle; it plagues us through the ages. But it can also deliver us.
Evgeni Onegin (Alessandro Juliani) is a charismatic bad boy who inherits some land in the country when his uncle (finally) dies. He is pals with Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein), a poet who is in love with Onegin's new neighbour, Olga (Lauren Jackson). Olga, lively and fun, has a shy, novel-loving sister, Tatyana (Meg Roe). When Tatyana meets the irresistible Onegin, she falls for him instantly. But Onegin is a player of the field; he is not the marrying kind. At a party some time later, he flirts with Olga, his BFF's girl, and their dancing gets out of hand. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel the next morning. And that's where the second act begins.
The show is sung through, beginning with a wild opening number where the ensemble tells the audience: "We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open." They deliver on those hopes. Onegin has been held over twice now, and with good reason. It is spectacular.
Onegin is not simply a shiny musical with catchy tunes and clever lyrics. This show rises to another level: It is a searing love story with authenticity that cuts through the song-and-dance spectacle and strikes the audience at its core. The emotion does not feel Broadway-musical surface, but hits Russian-literature depths. This is most evident in the scenes between the irresistible Onegin and the luminous Tatyana – the connection when they meet; the tension when they discuss her love-confessing letter; the surprise when they encounter each other again years later; and the final, revelatory scene. Wow.
Roe and Juliani, partners in real life, are both so good in these roles – Juliani, as the self-described catch of the century, is the perfect narcissist; Roe's swinging emotions flash across her face and thrum through her body; there's a moment when she sinks into a chair that is perfect.
The entire cast is terrific. Epstein as Lensky is superb – with a strong, sweet voice; Jackson's Olga radiates with vitality; Andrew McNee plays a roster of characters but will best be remembered for his hilarious singing Frenchman who serenades Tatyana at her name-day soiree. Caitriona Murphy as the sisters' mother and Andrew Wheeler in a variety of roles are also solid.
The music is played live and the onstage musicians are marvellous: Hille behind the grand piano (which becomes part of the action), Marina Hasselberg on cello and Barry Mirochnick at the drums. The actors take up instruments at times as well. Who can forget the vision of Roe in a slip with an electric guitar strapped on, belting out, "I will die as we all must die"?
Everything about this show, which is directed by Gladstone, is inventive – right from the preshow announcement, delivered in the language of Pushkin (you haven't lived until you've heard "Indiegogo" pronounced in a heavy Russian accent). The thrust stage, with piles of old paperbacks at its edges, comes alive with clever staging and set design. Two empty picture frames magically turn into a horse-drawn carriage; a swath of white cloth becomes the snowy ground for a wintry morning duel. The choreography is gorgeous – and contributes to plot and character development. The costumes are sublime – mostly 19th-century Russian with dashes of the contemporary; Olga's floral-on-black boots alone encapsulate this vintage/modern theme with panache. Making use of the intimate space, the players interact with the audience – chatting before the opening number, delivering shots of vodka and employing those lucky enough to score a front-row seat to assist with crucial letter-delivery duties.
If you've ever found a night at the theatre to be too much work, too long, too dreary, too predictable – Onegin is the antidote. In the opening number, the overprivileged, understimulated characters stuck in the Russian countryside for another long winter sing, "Oh dear Father up in heaven, release us from boredom."
This show does that, big time. And if there's any justice – or that dear Father up in heaven is watching – that's where this show should be headed: for the big time.
Onegin is at the Goldcorp Stage of the BMO Theatre Centre in Vancouver until April 17 (artsclub.com).