BWW Review: Drink to Love and Love to Drink at The Musical Stage Company's ONEGIN
You don't always get a second chance at love. The Musical Stage Company's ONEGIN presents this cautionary moral tale in 120 minutes of energetic, interactive musical theatre. A mix of old and new, Pushkin's famous poem and Tchaikovsky's renowned opera meet music and lyrics by creators Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone.
The mostly sung-through musical begins with a group of Russians, begging for release from their eternal boredom ("Oh, dear father"). Tatyana, a shy and intelligent girl, is introduced to her new neighbour, the charming aristocrat, Onegin. Love at first sight clouds her young heart - but will his love be returned?
Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone have composed a catchy, beautiful score for ONEGIN. The music is full of intelligent repetitions. One motif ("Oh, Dear Father") is reprised several times throughout the show, its meaning manipulated from please let something happen, to please love me, to please don't love him. Another instance of repetition makes use of a double entendre - Tatyana's song ("Let Me Die"), a soliloquy of blossoming lust, is reprised in its literal meaning near the end of the show by Onegin. Some moments, like the Act I finale ("In Your House"), could even be described as Sondheim-esque in their foundation of layered, simultaneous and contrasting musical melodies. Hille and Gladstone describe the genre as "Indiefolkrockchamberpop - rousing cabaret" - I'd add operetta to the end of that.
Fans of the opera, Eugene Onegin will appreciate the sung recitative connecting the musical's songs - it's conversational and well-performed. The letter scene, one of the opera's greatest moments, has been given a stunning tribute (not musically, but emotionally) in "Let Me Die". Though probably not intentional, similarities can be drawn to Deborah Warner's acclaimed Metropolitan Opera production. The grand, elaborate windows in the set, designed by Denyse Karn, have a similar aesthetic to the first act set design in Warner's production. The interactions between Onegin and Tatyana near the end of the musical also feel familiar (Onegin on his knees, grabbing at Tatyana's gown).
Speaking of gowns - Alex Amini has designed incredible costumes for the production. Tatyana's costumes mature with her, from flowery frocks to a pure, white gown - always a reflection of her innocence. Amini cleverly pairs the dress (image below) with a pair of striking red heels, hinting at Tatyana's repressed adulterous desire. The costumes are complemented by John Webber's lighting, which, paired with Michael Laird's stellar sound design, elevates the musical to rock opera status. Laird can make six people sound like a mighty ensemble.
The performances by the talented ensemble are electric. Hailey Gillis is impeccably addictive as Tatyana. Her voice, like beautiful steel, transitions easily from a soft, emotional head voice to a full, mixed belt with excellent control. It's hard to take your eyes off of her whenever she's on stage. Josh Epstein flaunts his flawless tenor as Vladimir Lensky, showing off the extremes of his voice with an epic belt that never quits. Elena Juatco commits fully to Olga's wholesomeness - her voice Disneyesque in clarity and tone. As the mother, Rebecca Auerbach nails comedic naivety. Shane Carty and Peter Fernandes play "many others", providing the show's necessary comedic relief. In the title role, Daren A. Herbert has the difficult task of playing a character that is never granted sympathy. Herbert has some nice moments, especially in his higher register. (There were mic issues during the performance I saw, which affected how his voice sounded in the house.)
You can't talk about ONEGIN without paying respect to the band. Chris Tsujiuchi, who musically directs, also rocks the piano and keyboard (in heels). Erika Nielsen, on cello, is responsible for most of the score's beautiful Russian sound. Barry Mirochnick keeps the tempo moving, on percussion and guitar.
The only issues to be had with the show is in its dramatic progression. During the beginning of the first act, the pacing is explosive and exciting, but seems to rush through the story. The final scene of the first act seems to come out of nowhere, after an unnecessary (though quite funny) musical number ("Queen of Tonight").
There is something for everyone in ONEGIN. The interactiveness of Gladstone's direction creates an inclusive experience - some members of the audience are even expected to help with props! The Musical Stage Company is creating in an exciting time for Canadian musical theatre. ONEGIN is proof that there is a bright future for new works.
ONEGIN, presented by The Musical Stage Company is playing through June 4, 2017 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, ON.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.musicalstagecompany.com
(Photo credit: Racheal McCaig Photography)