Saturday, March 26, 2016

Onegin at the Arts Club

Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille clearly work well together. First, there was the smash hit Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata (written with Bill Richardson), which played the PuSh Festival in 2012 and may soon be heading to New York. Then there have been a string of East Van Pantos (written with Charlie Demers), which after three years have already become a York Theatre Christmas institution. Now comes their latest collaboration, Onegin, a "passionate new musical" currently playing at the Arts Club's new BMO Theatre in Olympic Village that Richard and I fittingly saw on Good Friday.

The work is adapted from both the Pushkin poem and the Tchaikovsky opera, and all the basic plot points are retained. Evgeni Onegin (Alessandro Juliani, making an assured Arts Club acting debut), a self-involved cad, arrives in sleepy St. Petersburg to preside impatiently over the death of his uncle. Soon he hooks up with his old friend, the poet Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein), who introduces Onegin to his fiancee, Olga (Lauren Jackson), and Olga's older sister, Tatyana (a stand-out Meg Roe). Tatyana, who up until this point has lived her life largely through books (as referenced in the piles of them that constitute a key feature of Drew Facey's set design), is instantly smitten with the dashing but reprobate Onegin--a man who refers to himself, in the hilarious song that heralds his arrival in town, as a "rock star."

Tatyana pours out her heart to Onegin in a letter, a scene which gives rise to one of Tchaikovsky's most famous arias, and which here, in "The Letter Song," Hille subtly references musically, while Gladstone cleverly enlists the front rows of the audience in the missive's delivery. (The thrust stage is configured in the round and Gladstone choreographs several moments of direct interaction between performers and audience members, including a drinking game involving shots of vodka. All of this feels organic to the production's overall storytelling frame rather than unnecessarily ingratiating and gimmicky.) Needless to say, Tatyana's feelings are not reciprocated by Onegin, who tells her he is not made for love, or at least the version that comes with marriage and domesticity. Tatyana is heartbroken, but unlike most tragic heroines from nineteenth-century opera the news doesn't kill her, and Gladstone and Hille give her a Heart-like power ballad to emphasize her strength and resilience--which Roe absolutely nails, complete with her own rock star guitar licks. (Another conceit of the production is that all of the actors are enlisted at different points to pick up instruments and supplement the house orchestra--Hille on piano and keyboards, Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar, and Marina Hasselberg on cello. This includes various turns at guitar and bass, as well as the tubular bells, and a virtuosic Caitriona Murphy--who plays Olga and Tatyana's mother--on violin.)

Onegin, having rebuffed Tatyana, is bored, and so at her name day celebrations (which features a wonderful Justin Timberlake/Bieber-esque falsetto tribute from Andrew McNee as the French tutor Monsieur Triquet) decides to flirt with her sister. Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with Lensky, who of course challenges Onegin to a duel. Neither man wants to go through with the gunfight, but their pride also prevents them from backing down. Inevitably, Lensky is killed, which sends Onegin into self-imposed exile traveling throughout Europe. Returning to St. Petersburg six years later, Onegin reencounters Tatyana at a ball thrown by Prince Gremin (Andrew Wheeler), the much older man to whom Tatyana is married. It's now Onegin's turn to be smitten, and so cue a repeat of the earlier letter scene. But while Tatyana's feelings for Onegin are undeniably rekindled, she tells him "no." Their tragedy, it would seem, boils down to a case of missed timing--something less grand and operatic than consumption, perhaps, but also something to which audience members tapping into their own "only if's" can potentially better relate. And it is to Hille and Gladstone's credit that in a musical filled with its share of belly laughs they mostly eschew their natural impulse towards irony, opting instead for plainness of meaning and unadorned sincerity. Indeed, one might say that Onegin is to Craigslist what Stephen Sondheim's Passion is to Into the Woods.

At the same time, the emotional tone of the work never feels manipulative or heavy-handed. And I think that has a lot to do with the scale of this staging. From the compactness of the company and orchestra to the subtle brocaded and damasked references to White Russian society contained in Jacqueline Firkins' costumes and Facey's drapey backdrop, and from simple dramaturgical effects (a cup of red wine on a white sheet to evoke Lensky's spilled blood on the snowy forest floor) to the intimate size of the house: nothing here feels overproduced, and so consequently every choice registers as at once inevitable and absolutely authentic.

This is a Broadway-worthy musical that, mercifully, forgoes Broadway-style spectacle. And for that there is only one word: Nostrovia!


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