Review: Onegin’s portrayal of young love conquers despite some missteps

Daren A. Herbert, Hailey Gillis in Onegin. Photo: Matt Barnes

Pity the rich boy with too much time on his hands. His heart entombed as though by a Russian winter, he drifts through life bored, disconnected, emotionally somnolent. And if his name is Evgeni Onegin, he manages, through indifference to all but his own wants, to hurt deeply those who reach out to him and, in the end, to become the victim of his own glacial persona.

Onegin, in other words, isn’t the kind of guy you’d choose to hang with. But, as the titular character in the new, spirited musical by west coasters Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille — who based their show on the early 19th century poem by Alexander Pushkin and the subsequent Tchaikovsky opera — he is someone to whom you pay attention.

“Amuse me, surprise me, shake me … try to awake me,” he sings near the top of the show, which opens the new theatre season at the National Arts Centre. Played with a supercilious gaze and an unyielding, upright carriage by Daren A. Herbert, Onegin needs a damn good shaking. The shy but ardent young Tatyana Larin (Hailey Gillis, whose singing voice is a marvel of colour) does her best. The two meet at a party, where she’s smitten by this good-looking bad boy. Onegin, of course, resists her. However, resisting is not the same as being unaware, and, in one of many moments that reveal a beating heart beneath that frosty exterior, he later explains that he doesn’t want to hurt her.

While this drama of unrequited young love is occurring – and Onegin, with its nod-and-wink to the fun of being a little over the top, is nothing if not dramatic – another love story is blossoming.

Onegin’s hyper-romantic poet pal Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein) has teamed up with Tatyana’s younger, bright-eyed sister Olga (Elena Juatco). All goes swimmingly for the two until Lensky, enraged by Onegin’s trifling with Olga, challenges him to a duel and comes out on the wrong end of his buddy’s pistol (Pushkin himself fought a duel in 1837, ending up fatally wounded).

It probably goes without saying that things go less than well for Onegin after that, although Denyse Karn’s looming set of a country home’s interior with broken windows and scattered books signals from the outset that dissolution is in the wind.

Gladstone and Hille, attuned to the fact that duels are less than common in the 21st century, preface the big  showdown with the tongue-in-cheek tune Rules for Dueling. It’s sung by a caped character who oversees the event (Rebecca Auerbach, also Madame Larin). But with muddy mixes here and elsewhere on opening night, the lyrics were frequently overwhelmed by the music of the on-stage trio. All of which kind of defeats the purpose of an explanatory tune.

Blameless for the unbalanced sound, that trio, led by music director Chris Tsujiuchi, handles Gladstone and Hille’s compositions sharply and often with sly humour. The music – by turns urgent, sweeping and melancholy – is integral to Onegin’s story, its references to ghosts (and what is Onegin but a ghost of a man?) and to honour (another ghost-like quality these days?), and to the tale’s decidedly un-Hollywood-like conclusion.

The music, with nods to Tchaikovsky, the sadness of a Russian autumn and contemporary rock, is also timeless. That’s in keeping with director Gladstone’s choice to underscore the timelessness of unrequited love stories by sprinkling a two-centuries-old tale with a modern ballpoint pen in a letter-writing scene and to have Olga slashing on an electric guitar while wearing a brilliant red dress from a bygone era (Alex Amini clearly had fun with the costume design).

Onegin, choreographed by Linda Garneau and memorably lit by John Webber, is flawed. Olga, while less critical to the story than her sister, is underdeveloped. Some scenes, including the performance of Queen of Tonight by a foppish “French” singer, are played strictly for laughs while adding little to the story. And there is awkward staging including a scene toward the end when Onegin and another character are apparently looking at Tatyana but seem instead to be gazing at Olga and her rich, red dress.

Missteps aside, Onegin proves again that young love, bad boys and good music never grow old.

Onegin is a production of The Musical Stage Company (Toronto) in collaboration with NAC English Theatre. It was reviewed Friday. In the Babs Asper Theatre until Sept. 30. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.