Thursday, 24 March 2016

Onegin is a shimmery sparkling gem of a show!

From the footlights : Albert Einstein surely was seeing Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone in his crystal ball when he said, almost offhandedly : "Creativity is intelligence at play."

Because play the two of them do with snap! originality! & fun galore! in their original musical Onegin (pron. uh-NAY-gen) that had its world premiere last night at the BMO Theatre Centre on 1st Avenue. 

Their script is based on both the original Aleksandr Pushkin novel-in-verse Yevgeny Onegin written in serialized chapters between 1825-1835 and on the 1879 opera anglicized as Eugene Onegin by Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky that Wiki insists is "one of the most commonly performed operas in the world".

The Arts Club media release sums up the Gladstone / Hille script succinctly and with lots of winks : "Life is quiet on the Larin family's Russian country estate -- until the charismatic Evgeni Onegin ignites the romantic longings of its residents. Poet Vladimir Lensky dances with jealousy when Onegin flirts with his fiancee, Olga, and even the reclusive Tatyana Larin finds herself falling for the handsome rogue. But will Onegin embrace real love or simply skim its surface?" 

Spoiler alert : Onegin will only skim it. But getting there is the thrill of this piece. And in doing so the high-talent package who deliver the show's snap! originality! & fun galore! dazzled the crowd into a universal standing-o -- wholly deserved -- at its end.

How it's all put together : Having read translations of dozens of Pushkin's 14-verse stanzas to-day as well as Tchaikovsky's libretto, I can report two conclusions : (1) the Gladstone/Hille script is an honest tracking of their predecessors' works, and (2) it is a whole lot spunkier and silly.

Here's the opening scene from Pushkin : "My uncle, a most worthy gentleman / When he fell seriously ill / By snuffing it made us all respect him... / But, God above, what crushing boredom / To sit with the malingerer night and day... / To amuse the half-dead codger."  

Compare this : Crowd involvement starts before the show as actors and musicians mingle with patrons chatting cheerfully. The opener tells the crowd "We have a love song we sing to you / We beg that you might hear it / We hope to break you open!" Drinks (Potemkin vodka) are passed to the audience to hoist each time the word "love" (pron. lyoo-BEET) is heard. "Dear Father up in Heaven / look down upon us smiling / Let this play be goddamn good / Let this play begin!"

"Look around / Do you see someone / worth dying for?" the troupe sings with peppy irony as Onegin (Alessandro Juliani), drinking out of a flask, circles smugly about dying uncle (Andrew Wheeler) collapsed scruffily in aristocrat threads on a day bed. When uncle finally gasps his last, Onegin drinks to his own health not to uncle's. Evgeni later recalls of that moment : "He looked me in the eye and said / 'When will the devil come for you?'" 

Meeting the Larin family and friends for the first time, everyone's fawning over the newcomer to the valley, calling him a "catch" and drooling "He's fucking gorgeous!" We know we are not in St. Petersburg, Kansas any longer. 

What the show brings to the stage :  In 1984 Tina Turner famously sassed, "What's love got to do with it?" Writers Hille and Gladstone, who's also the show's director, think the answer to that question is "Everything!" as they unpack and repackage the Pushkin / Tchaikovsky originals in their 2-hour piece that is a mix of vaudeville, cabaret, silent movie choreography and circus all at once. Gladstone reveals "We wanted to do something about connection, something romantic. Onegin felt like the perfect piece to adapt for modern audiences because these characters' missed opportunities show us what happens when we don't embrace love when it comes to you."

Vancouver theatre fans will recognize the writers as the original team behind Craigslist Cantata from the 2012 PuSH Festival. At the time Hille identified herself as a composer of "eccentric musicals". Of this script she says "When we started writing Onegin, I was ready to dive into grand romance. This show has let me feel things I haven't felt in ages. Sprawling messy feelings that led to soaring melodies and hot dreams and some pretty fervent singing. We have a fantastic gang of players, and I can't wait to finally unleash these songs." And unleash this company truly does. 

Some necessary plotty details :  As the jilted would-be lover and wannabe future wife, late-teen Tatyana (Meg Roe) is obviously the scriptwriters' favourite character. Bookish, innocent, shy, elder sister of Olga (Lauren Jackson), she writes Onegin a love letter and sings, poignantly, touchingly "Let me die, let me die, as we all must die -- but let me live first!" Onegin, a half-dozen years older, responds with a dull lecture how marriage would be hell on earth for him. Tatyana flees, mortified, crushed, broken.

Closest buddy is a younger romantic poet Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein). He's grown up with the Larins and has loved Olga, only 13, since they were kids. Despite Evgeny's obvious rejection of Tatyana's advances, Lensky tricks Onegin back to another party at the Larins with a swack of local folk invited, too. Onegin is miffed. Gets even by dancing every dance with Olga and flirting madly with her. 

Lensky is outraged. Challenges Onegin to a duel. Lensky is shot dead. The characters disperse. When Onegin next sees Tatyana, a half-dozen years hence, she is Princess Gremina, married to a greying ex-soldier. Despite a heaving bosom -- "Like some restless ghost / his passion awakes my eyes" -- she represses her true feelings and shuns him for the prince she has married.

But not before the two of them share a delicious duet, telling one another : "If I wanted to live in love / then you are who I would choose." Which is quite different from Tchaikovsky's version where she sings waspishly "Farewell forever!" and Onegin rushes offstage crying "Ignominy! Anguish! Oh my pitiable fate!"

Production hi-lites : The Gladstone/Hille script is scintillating. Recurring musical themes and solo lines are revisited throughout the show, with the Roe/Juliani duet "Let me die..." at the end a genuine tear-jerker, each of their finest moments of the night no question. Tracey Power (of Chelsea Hotel, Miss Shakespeare and EastVan Panto pedigree) does an exceptional job hurtling these performers around every inch and in every corner of the horseshoe stage as well as out into the audience proper.

Director Gladstone had terrific fun with cast and audience both. When the star-crossed lovers sent letters to one another at the start and close of the story, Gladstone introduced a schtick of asking the front-row audience to pass them along, patron to patron, to each of Evgeny and Tatyana on their upstage left platforms while the actors egged the audience to do it More quickly! please. This was a unique and wholly fun bit to break down traditional arms-length 4th-wall staging.

Set Designer Drew Facey engaged the eye from the start with stacks of Tatyana's books anchored in each corner of the stage and down the sides. His St. Petersburg-y velvet 15-foot high drapes behind the orchestra upstage were rich and symbolic of the times both.

Acting pin-spots : As the ill-fated poet Lensky, Josh Epstein grabs top honours among the men, to this eye & ear, while coincidentally Lauren Jackson as fiancee Olga revealed utter charm and coquettish playfulness throughout, just a delight to watch. Playing the part of birthday entertainer Triquet, Andrew McNee put on a camp-&-vamp performance nonpareil, worth going to see the show a second time for his turn there alone. Like Wheeler, he played many other bit parts throughout the show. Good turns from them as well as from Caitriona Murphy as Ma Larin plus chorus parts.

Musical chops galore : Three instruments have always been my utter favourites. Cello first and foremost. Then oboe. Then piano. Not only did the creators feature the melancholia inherent in the cello to terrific effect, player Marina Hasselberg finessed her instrument wonderfully well. Co-creator and musical director Veda Hille, as always, blows a terrific! piano & keyboards, as they say in jazz, even while her singing and eye-traffic and verbal shout-outs throughout the evening also add to the fun. Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar had both instruments fully at his command. 

Who gonna like : The headline says it all. This is a shimmering, sparkly gem of a show. It is utterly original, cheeky, charming and (like Turner) sassy in its update of the original Pushkin who told his publisher P.A. Pletnyov back in the day he intended his piece to be "half humorous", an objective Tchaikovsky only barely managed in the early scenes of his opera. In the hands of Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, meanwhile, the Onegin story keeps the audience laughing and clapping and cheering and crying throughout even as their ears are tickled with great tunes masterfully arranged. 

If you haven't been to the 1st Avenue ACT venue as yet, this is your last chance for this season. A more charming musical review cast, directed, choreographed, and delivered by the actors would be hard to imagine. Is there anything Veda Hille does that I don't bust my chops praising ? No. There isn't.

Particulars :  By Amiel Gladstone & Veda Hille (based on the verse-novel by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky). At ACT's new 1st Avenue / Olympic Village stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West 1st Avenue.  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  On until April 10th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director/Writer Amiel Gladstone.  Musical Director / Writer Veda Hille.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Costume Designer Jacqueline Firkins. Assistant Costume Designer Nicole Bairstow.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Allison Spearin.  Apprentice Stage Manager Sandra Drag.  Copyist James Coomber.

Performers (music) :  Veda Hille (Piano & keyboards).  Marina Hasselberg (Cello).  Barry Mirochnic (Percussion & guitar).

Performers (actors) : Josh Epstein (Vladimir Lensky).  Lauren Jackson (Olga Larin).  Alessandro Juliani (Evgeni Onegin).  Andrew McNee (Triquet, Zaretsky and others).  Caitriona Murphy (Madame Larin and others).  Meg Roe (Tatyana Larin).  Andrew Wheeler (Prince Gremin and others).


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