By Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille. Based on the poem by Aleksandr Pushkin and the opera by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Granville Island Stage on Saturday, December 2. Continues until December 31
If you’re anything like me, the phrase “adapted from Pushkin and Tchaikovsky” doesn’t send you sprinting to the box office. But the musical Onegin, written by Amiel Gladstone and singer-songwriter Veda Hille, is the opposite of the stuffiness that's often associated with those two Russians. Instead, it’s electric, witty, and simply a ton of fun.
As the cast sings, “It’s Russia, it’s winter, it’s a long time ago.” Evgeni Onegin (Alessandro Juliani) inherits his uncle’s country estate and visits the neighbours, the Larins. His friend Vladimir (Josh Epstein) is betrothed to Olga Larin (Lauren Jackson). But that doesn’t prevent Onegin from flirting with both Olga and her older, shier sister Tatyana (Meg Roe), who falls hard for him. He is the cat set among the pigeons, and a fracas ensues.
Like, say, Rent, Onegin is a sung-through musical, so there’s hardly any dialogue outside of the songs. Which is great, because Hille and Gladstone’s melodies are sumptuous and the cast is full of evocative singers.
A theatre professor once told me that “70 percent of directing is casting.” Taking nothing away from Gladstone’s staging, the cast here is magnificent, full of confidence and charisma.
Both in the writing and direction, Gladstone wields a light touch. Two jittering picture frames make a carriage, a few snowflakes suggest a storm.
The stage is all Edison bulbs and wooden chandeliers above, with stacks of paperbacks below. With the eclectic costuming and the cast occasionally picking up an instrument, it feels like folk fest in a St. Petersburg antique shop.
Ostensibly the show is set near St. Petersburg in the early 19th century, but Gladstone plays fast and loose with time, place, and everything in between. Prince and Taylor Swift feature in the preshow music, hip-hop and flamenco fire up the choreography, and bohemian costumes suggest The Cherry Orchard at Burning Man. Singing her gorgeous solo “Let Me Die”, Roe improbably accompanies herself on an electric guitar—and in her shimmering shift dress, she might be Leslie Feist.
This postmodern approach extends to the performers, who enter from the back of the house and hobnob with the audience, out of character. There’s quite a bit of audience interaction—vodka shots are served at one point. So if that’s not your bag, don’t sit on the aisle.
The plot is slight and hinges on that old trope of Russian literature: a duel. I did wonder why the play, having thrown off so many theatrical constraints, remained so shackled to this one.
But that’s a quibble. This show is a remount of Onegin’s triumphant premiere in the spring of 2016. Since then, it’s played in Victoria, Toronto, and Ottawa, and taken home 10 Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards.
I wouldn’t want every play to be as po-mo and boho as this one, but Onegin is as good as any show you’ll see this year—and also a rollicking good time.