Onegin: The Play That Comes With Its Own Drinking Game

onegin-final-nac96038__largeWell, it’s the start of a new English Theatre season at the National Arts Centre and unfortunately it was a bit of a disappointing start.  Onegin looked like it had the potential to be a really fantastic musical, but compared to the musicals that were a part of the last English Theatre season, this one just fell flat.  The creators behind this musical are the same team behind a previous English Theatre musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille.  I absolutely adored their musical about Craigslist so I was certain I would enjoy Onegin.  That was probably the biggest disappointment as Onegin was nowhere near as good as Gladstone and Hille’s previous work.  It wasn’t necessarily bad, and it actually did have some really good elements, but the whole thing just did not come together properly.

The story itself is certainly an interesting concept that has been adapted from Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s opera about Onegin.  The play focuses on the relationships between sisters Olga and Tatyana Larin and their respective love interests Vladmir Lensky and Evgeni Onegin, and deals with themes of unrequited love and missed opportunities. In the Playwright’s Notes section of the program, Gladstone and Hille write that “[t]he characters’ missed opportunities show us what happens when we don’t embrace love when it comes.  What it looks and feels like to turn away from its vitality and beauty.” Although all of the elements were there for a really wonderful musical, the play itself felt like a missed opportunity.

The set for this play was absolutely amazing and I was impressed the moment I walked into the theatre.  It was grand, and spectacular, and full of little details that kept the eye wandering.  And there were books just about everywhere so of course I loved that.  The lighting was simple but interesting.  Parts of the stage (and even the theatre itself) were lit with artificial candles and string lights so the stage always had a kind of romantic glow.  The lighting became much more colourful in act two when colours other than white shone onto the stage and colourful paper lanterns were added to the decor.

The opening of the play was a lot of fun as the typical English Theatre opening announcement was done almost entirely in Russian, and the actors interacted with the audience – this happened a few times throughout the play and was always well executed.  They even introduced a drinking game (the actors only provided alcohol to a handful of audience members for this) where you have to drink every time anyone says the Russian word for “love”.  The choreography both in the opening number and all following dance numbers was very well done and the costumes for this play were fun, colourful, and appropriate to the setting and the time period.

Now, all of this together probably makes it sound like this was a really good play.  It was only after the show that I was able to clearly reflect on these elements that went well because during the performance I was too distracted by the musical element of this show.  The band was phenomenal, but the actual music and the singing was not.  Out of the 19 songs in this production, about 8 of them were actually worth listening to.  The main issue is that there were a few great songs that were preceded and followed by really mediocre songs.  There was also barely any dialogue between the songs and by the end of the play all of the music just started to sound the same.  I feel that if a few of the songs had been removed and replaced by spoken lines this might have helped.

Adding more dialogue might have been beneficial to the actors as well since they did not seem to be doing too good a job with the songs.  I have seen some of these actors in NAC productions before and they are very good singers, but something was just not right for this particular show.  I’m not sure if the performers were just having an bad night, but I feel like perhaps the vocal ranges of the actors did not entirely work for the songs in the play – or maybe even the songs just weren’t right.  I went for long stretches of time thinking certain actors were horrible singers until they reached a song that was absolutely perfect for their vocal range – then it was only about a minute or two of greatness before the mediocrity set back in.  To make matters worse, it felt as if they were having problems with the microphones that night because in some scenes the actors would sing a few bars before their mics were on, and sometimes the mics seemed to cut out for a bit mid song.

The only good thing about the music was the band.  Led by Chris Tsujiuchi, Barry Mirochnick and Erika Nielson were, by far, my favourite part of the show.  Not only were all three musicians very skilled at their craft, Tsujiuchi was especially fun to watch as he was really getting in to the music and his hair was flying everywhere – and he was wearing silver sequins under his black shirt.  I would definitely love to see these musicians perform again.  They were even included as characters, in a way, as they were referred to as “The Ungrateful Dead” and each had their own mini backstory as to how they died.  (Spoiler: They were even joined by one of the actors later on in the show when his character died in a duel).  This little area of musical purgatory was guaranteed entertainment when the rest of the performance was lackluster by comparison.

Overall, it was a fun show but I really think I would have enjoyed it more if I had not been so distracted by the fact that some of the songs just did not feel right.  This is certainly nowhere near the best musical the NAC English Theatre has presented, but it is definitely not the worst play I have seen at the National Arts Centre.  I’m still looking forward to the rest of this theatre season, and from what I’ve seen and heard about this season’s line up I’m optimistic that the shows will only continue to get better.

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