Review: ONEGIN

by Lynn on May 20, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone
Based on the poem by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky
Directed by Emiel Gladstone
Music director, Chris Tsujiuchi
Choreographer, Linda Garneau
Set by Denyse Karn
Costumes by Alex Amini
Lighting by John Webber
Sound by Michael Laird
Cast: Rebecca Auerbach
Shane Carty
Josh Epstein
Peter Fernandes
Hailey Gillis
Daren A. Herbert
Elena Juatco

So much promise. Such a disappointment.

The Story. Russia, 1819. Vladimir Lensky is in love with Olga Larin and she with him. He tells his good friend Evgeni Onegin that Olga has a sister, Tatyana, and that they would make a good pair. Evgeni spends most of his time being aloof and bored. He’s rich and has inherited property and visits said property but that bores him. He meets Tatyana. He appears charming. She falls in love. She tells him in a letter she loves him. He tells her in person he does not return the affection. He does flirt with Olga who likes the attention. This in turn angers Lensky. Lensky and Onegin have heated words. There is a dual. Someone dies and it’s not Onegin. And it goes from there. It’s a story that is full of passion, drama, intrigue and high emotions.

The Production. Denyse Karn’s set is terrific. We are looking at a place of decay. Books, beer bottles and other stuff are on the ledges of the set. Great tree branches burst out of broken windows of what might have been the manor house of a large estate. The walls are dingy. The band of three is upstage.

The cast come out on stage and down the aisles of the theatre greeting us, hugging those they know, clinking classes. Daren A. Herbert, who plays Evgeni Onegin takes a flask out of his inside coat pocket and clinks it with a man drinking from a glass in the audience. There is a sense of celebration, good times and laughs.

Once on stage Josh Epstein, as Vladimir Lensky, is a compact, athletic man who shimmies and jives to his own rhythm. He acts as a lively master of ceremonies getting us in the mood. Every time someone says Lvov (I believe) is the signal for someone to take a swig of vodka. There is a lot of that at the beginning of the show.

He introduces the characters and the band, (percussion/guitar, cello, piano) none of whom we have met yet really. Such introductions are usually at the end after they have actually played something. Perhaps this is different.

The first song is “A Love Song” which says the show is about love, love love. Hmmm. Ok. I know the story and a guy gets killed and people are unhappy. Hmmmm but this song says the show is about love, love, love. Next the company sings “Oh, Dear Father” and does some rousing dancing while they pray to the father above to save them all from this boredom. Huh?

Evgeni Onegin makes a dramatic entrance in shadow up there in the window frame stage left. He descends gracefully. He’s jaunty, wears a scarf rakishly knotted at the neck. Then the company sings “Three Horses” as Onegin sits in a chair with some stuff around him as he and the company simulate him being taken to his uncle’s estate in a carriage drawn by horses (Lots of swaying to and fro, lots of bumping up and down as the carriage ‘travels’ along the road). Daren A. Herbert certainly suggests that he doesn’t want to keep checking the estate that he inherited and that he really is bored. The song establishes it but it says precious little about the details of his life.

I keep waiting for a song to lead naturally to another so that some story could be established, but in fact each song is complete unto itself. Perhaps this is a new form of musical, I’m thinking? But then quickly realize it’s an old fashioned kind of musical that is merely bad. And confused.

Veda Hille is the co-writer with Amiel Gladstone on\f the book, music and lyrics. She is also the Music Supervisor. I have to wonder why she doesn’t know that the amplified three piece band drowns out the cast and so too much of the lyrics are lost.

Amiel Gladstone also directs and here too we have a mash-up of styles and forms of performance/direction. At the duel between Onegin and Lensky one of them slumps down to the ground, dead. But for added ‘symbolism’ Gladstone has a circle of white light shine on the floor and a glop of red liquid is dropped in the circle, suggesting blood. Why? Doesn’t Gladstone trust us to get it? With a show so over the top in slap-stick, almost vaudeville high jinx we also need symbolism? Oh, PUULeeeze!

The audience is involved in mail delivery between characters. Tatyana sends a letter to Onegin and hands it to a person at the end of the front row and instructs that person to pass the letter to the next person and so on until the letter reaches the other end of the row, at which point the letter is given to Onegin who reads it. (sigh).

Act II begins with the cast entering the theatre from the down the aisles to the stage carrying trays of glowing opaque ‘candle’ holders and setting the candles around the stage. Very pretty but then the lights comes up to illuminate the room. The candles are a nice touch but wasted.

The cast are superb from top to bottom, headed by the always compelling Daren A. Herbert as Onegin. He has a strong voice, knows how to sing a song, no matter how ineffectual, and is a compelling presence. Of course women are charmed by him. Josh Epstein as Lensky is full of impish personality. He is an attentive suitor to Olga and conveys Lensky’s apprehension with the duel. After Lensky is killed (no spoilers here) Epstein spends the rest of the show upstage with the band. I can’t help but think he gets the better of the deal.

. Unfortunately none of the above aspects of passion, drama, intrigue or high emotions are at play in this mish-mash of a confused production. The creators (Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone can’t decide if their Onegin is a comedy that sends up the original story by chatting up the audience and playing to them etc.; a bizarre musical in which each song is complete in itself with little connection to the whole; a lively song and dance show with little connection to the story.

I expect the first song of any musical to actually set up the musical and establish the tone, attitude and ‘idea’ of the piece, but Onegin doesn’t. The second song “Oh, Dear Father”) rousingly suggests that they are all bored and need relief from that situation, but I couldn’t believe them since they dance and frolic for the whole number and the show in a sense, so how could they all even think we would believe they are bored. I keep waiting for a song to tell me what this musical is about, and by about 20 minutes into the show I realize that wait will end in disappointment.

This is the first show of the formerly named Acting Up Company now the newly named The Musical Stage Company to reflect their expanded mandate regarding new musicals. Onegin is the first show of this newly named company. It’s an eye-brow-knitting disappointment. Fortunately there is nowhere to go after this mish-mash but up.

The Musical Stage Company in collaboration with Canada’s National Arts Centre and in association with Producing Patrons Linda and Chris Montague presents:

Opened: May 17, 2017.
Closes: June 4, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

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