Onegin : This tribute to 21st century sensibility moves musical theatre far beyond the box!

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Onegin
Photo Rachael McQuaig

First of all do not read Pushkin’s work before seeing this.  Although the show is apparently set in Russia, it includes the main characters in the novel, it moves from Saint Petersburg to Moscow and back and there are references to Byron which one  finds in Pushkin’s text.  However,  a knowledge of this  early 19th century romantic novel which has become one of the great works of Russian literature will only confuse you. Just arrive at the NAC with no great expectations, think of what we are told that this is not an opera, relax, forget the ballet,  and you will probably enjoy this very much because it is clearly geared for a 21st century sensibility where existing operatic, theatrical , pop music and musical theatre conventions  have all been thrown to the wind.

My feeling?  The show, although it takes on the form of a Rock concert,   appears to follow Tchaikovsky’s libretto of  Onegin,  because this performance highlights the most important moments of the story and thus becomes a  19th century melodrama moving  forward rapidly:  the tragedy of a young country girl who falls in love with a brooding, self-centered iconic figure of the Romantic period,  struck by the writings of Lord Byron and  “l’ennui’, the favorite illness of  European literature of that period.   This one is  produced by the Musical Stage Company from Toronto, accompanied by three onstage members of a rock  group  on keyboards, cello, percussion and guitar,  who become a fascinating  performance unto  themselves.  The highly talented keyboard artist Chris Tsujiuchi pounds the piano to death, percussionist Barry Mirochnick and cellist Erika Nielson liberate powerful  energy on the bass sounds  that vibrate throughout the theatre but they often cut into the more delicately lyrical moments, creating much emotion but interrupting  the rare bits of intimate feeling that  spiral off the stage. This show was definitely an attempt to move musical theatre far, far outside the box.

There were moments that worked  well. The  confrontation between  Onegin (Daren Herbert) and Lensky (Josh Epstein) when  Onegin, after flirting with Lensky’s fiancé Olga, is finally challenged to a duel. Lensky’s aria when he says goodbye to Olga  showed how  Epstein’s voice and movement were among  the most important forces of the show.  Also well staged was  the early morning duel which had Onegin collapsing with sorrow at the end.

In general the structure of the second part,  which was already in Tchaikovsky’s libretto  where the exchange of letters and opposing reactions(Tatyana’s letter as opposed to Onegin’s letter)  recreated the counter effect of the first part of the show. That reversal of exchanges  produced a solid dramaturgical turn and  gave much  weight  to the final meeting between Onegin and Tatyana even though  parts of the audience did manage to howl  with laughter for  reasons I couldn’t fathom . They must have wanted to  emphasize  the sense of provocation that this show could represent in its new esthetic of counter conventional  adaptation.

However, even when we were told about the passion of the whole production, (an interview on YouTube made that point)  that is what was missing to my mind. I felt no passion;  I had no particular emotional feeling for this show  in spite of the great soaring sense of sadness  that should have resulted from that horrible moment when Onegin reacts to Tatyana’s letter that she sends him soon after their meeting.   The story was full of  sweeping emotions, of unbearable  tension, of sadness, of  excitement but none of that came over. What happened?

One problem was the way Onegin  (Daren A, Herbert) never managed to bring across  his brutal philandering man of the world character . His rock music voice was perhaps not suited to the great  sweeping highly theatrical emotions that should have bowled us over. It was also partly due to the fact that his singing  was  overwhelmed by  Hailey Gillis, as Tatyana, whose voice has a tragic and lyrical quality that brought out those  extraordinary emotions! (Let me Die).  In her case, the vocal performance and the stage character  complemented each other.  But because Onegin was the focal point of all the  energy of this performance, the emotional weakness of his singing ( all the dialogue was sung by the way) was even more obvious. But his was not the only one. The  scene where  Onegin  was supposed to be seducing Olga, his friend’s fiancé, just to annoy Lensky for bringing him to this boring party,  fell terribly flat.   Why?  Because even though Olga (Elena Juatco) danced like a giddy young girl, she did not carry her performance any further than that and so nothing vibrated between  her and Onegin. As a result, the  couple who was in the process of destroying both Tatyana and Lensky  and setting up a tragedy,  just disintegrated.

The most exciting moments were created by Josh Epstein as the poet Lensky, who apparently has been with the show since its creation in Vancouver.  He has a marvelously powerful and highly dramatic voice which came out in his aria with Olga just before the  duel.  He moves like a dancer and his corporeal fluidity helped unite the contemporary feeling of the  Rock music choreography with the  universal emotions of anger and jealousy that were at the source of his character and ultimately lead him to his death. He fused both period  sensibilities just as Shane Carty (the Prince Gremin) managed to do with his magnificent voice.

The Linda Garneau’s choreography  which worked so well in  Tremblay’s Belles-Sours: the Musical, seemed to bring out much of Tchaikovsky’s interest in folk dancing that one finds in his  ballets (Swan Lake was created one year after Onegin)  but the dancing appeared  rather watered down, diluted with  bits of  Paso doble, and flamenco, American hoe down, line dancing. It thrilled the spectators who wanted to have fun, and this was funnyish,  but it almost seemed an extension of the theatrical games that they played by having the actors move into the audience, pass the letters around  in a playful way, drop out of character and chat with people they meet on the way towards the stage, before moving on.   Thus a good part of the show was all about breaking the  theatrical illusion but then what is left for the passion, and emotion within the play and between the characters  which has to depend on an illusion created by the performance!    Far from it. It’s romantic love story where a cad destroys a young country girl and gets it in the end !  and the fun and games contradict all that.   We know that shows which break the barriers between audience and performers  have an important performance history  but those techniques usually   have  a theatrical reason to exist, not  just a need to titillate the audience. in this Onegin, it was a protest, a way of breaking down all the Onegins  preceding this one. And  a way of bringing the younger crowd into the theatre!  And then  why not? Tickets have to be sold.

As it is, there were those who loved this show, there were those who were perplexed, There were those who hated and loved it. The debate is on! For that reason it is certainly worth seeing. Real controversy over a work of art is a rare thing in Ottawa! .

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht. Photo Rachael McQuaig

Onegin plays in the Theatre at the NAC from September 13 to 30.

book, music and Lyrics by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone

Produed by the Musical Stage Company (Toronto) in collaboration iwth the NAC english Theatre.

Directed by Amiel Gladstone

Music supervisor  Veda Hille

Choreographer Linda Garneau

Set design  Denyse Karn

Lighting     John Weber

Sound design  Michael Laird

Costumes  Alex Amini

cast:

Olga                              Elena Juatco

Onegin                       Daren Herbert

Tatyana                      Hailey Gillis

Lensky                         Josh Epstein

Prince Gremin         Shane Carty

Mme Larin                Rebecca Auerbach

and  Peter frendandez, ..

 


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