“Drink harder, dance longer,” fall in love: the hot-blooded rock musical Onegin, a 12thnight review

Josh Epstein, centre, in Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the opening number of Onegin, a spirited ensemble assembles onstage and offers up the quintessential theatre invocation. “Our dear father up in heaven,” they sing, vodka in hand and eyes cast towards a theatrical firmament of chandeliers and hanging bulbs. “Send us a good time!”

I’m here to report that their prayers, and ours, have been answered, and then some! In the form of a hip, theatrically savvy, engaged and engaging original Canadian indie-rock musical.

The much-awarded Onegin is here at the invitation of Catalyst Theatre, to launch their Catalyst Presents initiative. It’s the work of an inventive and evidently fun-loving Vancouver team, Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille (of Craigslist Cantata fame). And it attaches their ironic and playful modern sensibility to a couple of 19th century stars:  “Russia’s greatest writer” (Alexander Pushkin, author of the 1839 narrative poem Eugene Onegin) and Russia’s biggest big-shot composer (Tchaikovsky, creator of the 1879 opera).

The results are exhilarating. And they’re also accessible, and fun, a party in two centuries. You can’t possibly be so jaded, Canadian winter notwithstanding, that you won’t be clamouring for a ticket. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Onegin, it’s this: avoid regret, embrace love now. Just sayin’. And in this I’m echoing the opening night audience who leapt to their feet in a spontaneous ovation.

At the outset, in Gladstone’s lively production, the ensemble infiltrates the audience, mingling, chatting, dispersing vodka, instigating a drinking game, teaching us the Russian word for love (lyubov! which seems to come with its own exclamation mark). And they introduce the characters they’ll inhabit, as well as the superb three-piece onstage band (The Ungrateful Dead, supplemented from time to time by the versatile cast). 

The agent provocateur, who sneaks in a bit of narration, is Josh Epstein, and his amusingly histrionic rock-star incarnation as the passionate poet (“and romantic!”) Lensky. As the strong-voiced Epstein demonstrates, for comic effect, he can hold those show-stopping high notes impressively. 

Hold that thought; the poet’s natural gravitation to the high note will be realized in melodramatic terms later in the show: a duel in the snow, at 20 paces. That liaison between unconventional music — sometimes lustrous and tuneful, sometimes dissonant and jagged — and drama is one of the considerable achievements of Onegin

Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani in Onegin, Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The engine of the story is an act of friendship. Lensky’s pal Onegin, a bored, self-infatuated rake from St. Petersburg whose mantra is “I don’t care” — played to the eye-rolling hilt by Alessandro Juliani — has inherited a country estate. Lensky, an enthusiast on the subject of love, takes him to visit the neighbours, the family of his animated fiancée Olga (Lauren Jackson). Olga’s older sister Tatyana (Meg Roe), a quiet bookworm who reads romance novels, is instantly smitten with the newcomer: “I understand those feelings from my book…. He has pierced me with a single look.”

Roe conveys, in a wonderfully nuanced way, that awakening into passion in her captivating performance. But she rises to the occasion of love, with all its risks, by strapping on an electric guitar to deliver the show’s most memorable song Let Me Die. It will be reprised by Onegin himself, when he and Tatyana meet under very different circumstances years later. 

The rebuff is cruelly dismissive. And Onegin amuses himself by flirting with Olga, in a dance that crosses the line into out-and-out seduction. Tracey Power’s sexy, flavourful choreography, a reinvention of the tango in Russian terms, is outstanding throughout.

Drew Facey’s set is dominated by a gorgeously draped red velvet curtain, on a stage with a perimeter of strewn books. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are fun to look at, a witty blend of modern hipster and Russian allusions (with great boots). John Webber’s dramatic lighting changes the seasons, turns rich smoky interiors into pewter-hued wintry landscapes, early mornings into twilights into candlelit evenings, and includes a striking assortment of light sources.

Onegin, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

The cast led by Juliani and Roe is excellent. The sweet-voiced Jackson delivers a performance of real charm as Olga, with Caitriona Murphy as the mother, and Andrew Wheeler as Prince Gremin. The most overtly comical character is a French entertainer who specializes in “name day” musical numbers. Nadeem Phillip is a hoot. It will be a long time, I predict, before you see another example of knee choreography atop a grand piano. 

I know, I mentioned a duel: it’s staged, as is the whole evening, with theatrical pizzaz and compression by Gladstone. The fun of Onegin, in both its performances and its stagecraft, is the way it gives full weight to operatic extravagance of feeling, without foregoing an irreverent light touch. Blending passionate and cheeky — the double-optic of involvement and distance — takes smarts.  

And as for the boredom, a lethal motivator in the story and a subject for discussion in the songs, it doesn’t stand a chance from the audience perspective. Onegin will lift your spirits and touch your heart.



Catalyst Presents

Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club

Created by: Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille

Directed by: Amiel Gladstone

Starring: Alessandro Juliani, Meg Roe, Josh Epstein, Lauren Jackson, Caitrionia Murphy, Andrew Wheeler, Nadeem Phillip

Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre

Running: through Jan. 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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