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L to R: Daren A. Herbert and Hailey Gillis. Photo: Racheal McCaig.

Theatre Review: Onegin at the National Arts Centre

By Jared Davidson on September 19, 2017




The first thing you need to know about Onegin is how to pronounce the title. It’s on-YE-gin (with a hard G). I can tell you that, among the nearly sold-out opening night crowd, there were very quite a few ONE-gins, even a few on-AH-gins.

That’s likely because, for a story that has been made into a poem by Pushkin, a ballet by Tchaikovsky, and several movie adaptations, Onegin as a story is relatively unknown in this part of North America. Frankly, the story itself is not much to know: it’s a capital-R Romantic tale about a man who loves a woman and then dies, and, another man who loves another woman and kills the first man. Everyone has a lot of feelings—the story was written in the 1825 after all. The women wear corsets and the men struggle with masculine identity. It’s great fun.

L to R: Daren A. Herbert and Hailey Gillis. Photo: Matt Barnes.

But what makes this version even more fun is that it’s musical theatre! With the utterance of that phrase, I’ve severed my audience in half, but those remaining will be happy to know that Onegin is one of the better examples of musical theatre to hit the NAC stage. It is lively, innovative, interesting, and well put together. A standing ovation was most assuredly earned, and the throngs of theatregoers humming the music on the way to their cars speaks to its achievement. While it is not without weak points, the show delivers great moments, and is packed with talent and style.

Onegin is one of the better examples of musical theatre to hit the NAC stage.

One of the strongest points is the music in general, performed live by a band situated behind the actors. The choice of location was ideal; the band is an integral part of the show, and their abilities highlighted an exceptional piece of work by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, the writers of the musical. Not only is this musical catchy and fun, it’s actually pretty ambitious musically. Fans of musical theatre will know that that’s not necessarily typical.

The comparisons will be made to Hamilton for the degree to which the lyrics bridge a gap between the past (“it’s Russia, it’s winter, it’s cold”) and a tongue in cheek, self-referential style that owes much to the writing of more recent Disney films. The music is structured as an album, or perhaps a rock opera, with each thought or scene representing a song. The strength of this is that we are treated to a new musical idea every 3 or 4 minutes, complete with verse, chorus, and hooks aplenty.

L to R: Daren A. Herbert and Hailey Gillis. Photo: Racheal McCaig.

This makes for a fairly demanding performance. Someone – generally one of the four primary actors – is always singing something. There’s very little in the way of recitative, that operatic technique whereby characters move the plot forward by basically just talking instead of singing. None of that here! Singing the whole way through!

All of the performers rise to the challenge, particularly Hailey Gillis, whose portrayal of Tatyana, the title character’s love interest, was so captivating that she stole every scene she was in. Her voice and expressiveness were evocative and added a layer of richness to the character that would otherwise not be there.

Photo: Racheal McCaig.

However, this weakness was hardly an issue as so much of the show shone. For fans of musical theatre, this is a good bet. For those who don’t like musical theatre, this may not be of interest; Onegin is very decidedly musical and theatric.

Onegin is playing at the National Arts Centre until September 30. Tickets cost $25–76 online and at the NAC Box Office. Student discounts and $15 live rush tickets are available.