“Oh dear father up in heaven, release us from boredom, oh dear father up in heaven send us a good time,” sing characters in the opening earworm song of Onegin, a new Canadian musical written by Amiel Gladstone & Veda Hille. The Musical Stage Company’s new production certainly succeeds in this goal, with a show that is inventive and fun. By presenting the nineteenth century source material in a contemporary way, they show that this classic tale’s exploration of love has relevance today.
The musical is based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse about bookish country girl Tatyana Larin, who falls for St. Petersburg dandy Evgeni Onegin. She declares her feelings for Onegin in a letter but he condescendingly rejects her advances. Later he is invited to Tatyana’s name day celebrations by his good friend Lensky, a hot-tempered poet who is engaged to Tatyana’s younger sister Olga. Bored at the celebrations, Onegin avenges himself by flirting and dancing with Olga. The display upsets Lensky and he challenges his former friend to a fateful duel.
While the novel has previously been adapted into an opera (Eugene Onegin, first performed in 1879 and also credited as an inspiration for this musical), I’m most familiar with it from the excellent John Cranko ballet (created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965).
Self-referential and interactive, Onegin involves its audience. The actors move among the audience, break the fourth wall (as Lensky says in the first number, “that’s right, I’m actually talking to you. It’s one of those shows”), and even use the first row as a postal service to deliver letters between parties. This could easily be taken too far, but in Onegin it adds to the fun atmosphere of the performance.
The gorgeous two-level set, created by Denyse Karn, is designed to resemble the old house full of books that Tatyana dreams about. Clever staging allows the space to transform with minimal adjustments so a folded white sheet becomes a snow covered dueling ground, and the remnants of a cup of tea become the spilled blood that follows a duel.
Comprised of a three-person on-stage band and a seven person cast, the ensemble is strong and sounds richer than you would expect from its small number. A shout-out to Shane Carty, who plays Prince Gremin and others and whose baritone gives the ensemble depth (and I’m not just saying that because he brought me a shot of vodka in my second viewing!).
Rare is the show where it’s not just one or two songs that stick with you, but most of the score. That was the indie-rock inspired Onegin for me. Standouts are “Let Me Die”, Tatyana’s solo about falling in love, Lensky’s moving “Olga Will You Weep”, sung the night before his duel with Onegin, and the earworm “Oh Dear Father” that opens the show. This is a score I would happily listen to over and over again.
The standout performance of the night comes from Hailey Gillis. Her Tatyana has a naive earnestness in the first act and is believably awkward and lovestruck in her interactions with Onegin. She matures in the second act into a confident young woman, capable of feeling her youthful passion for Onegin while realizing how poorly he treated her when she was an uncultured country girl and not a member of society. I never feel like I have enough superlatives to describe a Hailey Gillis performance and here, where she plays a character that she can really sink her teeth into, she shines, showing vulnerability and passion by turns. Her voice has a light, almost ethereal quality to it, that suits the score, and her acting is subtle with every choice feeling genuine. You can see the hope leave her eyes as Onegin turns Tatyana down.
The other standout is Josh Epstein, reprising his Jessie award winning role as Vladimir Lensky. Serving as a narrator of sorts for the show, his Lensky is both genial and passionate. Epstein seems the most comfortable with the self-referential style of the show, and his soaring tenor is a treat to listen to, especially in the moving night before the duel solo “Olga Will You Weep”. Even knowing how the story would play out, each time I wished that Lensky would reconcile with Onegin, not ready to say goodbye to the character.
There’s something almost intoxicating about Onegin for me. I first saw the show when it was still in previews and by intermission was planning a return. Shortly into the second viewing I realized that I had to see this one last time before it closed and have since bought tickets for a final performance. Needless to say, I love it.
As much as I enjoy this show though, I do have some critiques of the production. I’m so glad I went back for more because some of the issues I had when I saw Onegin in previews had been fixed, most noticeably, the cast have settled into their roles and are more comfortable with the style of the material. This is especially true of Daren A. Herbert, who played bored so well in the first act that the charming rakish young dandy didn’t always come across, and whose voice wasn’t always settled in the score. This time around he was a standout, incredibly charming from the get go, which meant that I felt sympathy for his Onegin even as I cheered Tatyana on. His voice was also stronger, finding the perfect balance between rough emotion and pitch.
There are still a few things that don’t work for me with this show, most notably the comic relief. Admittedly I’m not a huge fan of the comic relief song in musicals. I’d be perfectly happy to listen to Les Miserables without “Master of the House”, or Jesus Christ Superstar minus “Herod’s Song”. Onegin has two such songs designed to break the tension. “Queen of Tonight” at least draws a few laughs from the audience, although I thought its placement interrupted the flow of the show a little, but the song about rules for dueling fell completely flat and could use some re-writing, particularly since any musical in the modern age with a song about dueling is going to draw comparisons to Hamilton and “Ten Duel Commandments” this song ain’t.
As a mostly sung-through musical, I also found the transitions between songs were sometimes rough and could use some smoothing over.
All in all, Onegin isn’t perfect yet, but it’s a promising new Canadian musical with one of the best scores I’ve heard and a universally strong cast. I’m sure the road for this musical, which will also be heading to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this fall, and on a tour of Western Canada, is not over yet and I hope very much that it will one day lead this very deserving show to The Great White Way.
If you’re in the Toronto area, don’t miss the chance to see this wonderful show before it closes on Sunday!
Onegin plays until June 4th at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre.
Photo of Josh Epstein, Daren A. Herbert, Hailey Gillis by Racheal McCaig Photography