Onegin hits musical highs but love stories feel off: review

OneginBook, music and lyrics by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, based on the poem by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky. Directed by Gladstone. Through June 4 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. or 416-368-3110What a couple of years it’s been for new Canadian musicals — from the tip-top highs (Come from Away) to the deep, deep lows (Sousatzka).Toronto is now enjoying the local premiere of this new musical that took Vancouver by storm in 2016, winning an unprecedented 10 Jessie Awards (their version of the Doras) and leading one critic to rave that audiences are “lucky to be alive right now to see Onegin.”Article Continued BelowMusical theatre lovers will spot an insider Hamilton reference in that quote, and there are multiple nods to that and other influential tuners throughout the show itself. Its creators, Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, are clearly in love with musicals and with music, and their work here compositionally and lyrically is glorious (their previous collaboration, Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, played at Factory Theatre in 2013).The seven-member cast and three-piece band in this Musical Stage Company/National Arts Centre production do the score justice; the show sounds great. At first view, Denyse Karn’s set compellingly transforms the Berkeley Street Theatre into a ramshackle old mansion, with tall tree branches poking through broken windows, and twinkle lights adding to the mood.But as a live viewing experience this production, directed by co-creator Gladstone, does not fully satisfy. Hille and Gladstone say in a program note that after Craigslist Cantata, which is about disconnection, they wanted to celebrate love. But there’s a disparity in tone between the postmodern distance they take from their source material and the characters’ immersion in their individual and collective romantic misery.The first number states a desire “to please . . . to charm . . . to break you open,” but numerous aspects of the material and staging disavow such fervour. There’s a hipster look to the show, from the title character’s jeans, beard and fashionable scarf to two of the female performers’ Crayola-coloured hair extensions. And overall the show gets stuck in the caring/not caring, “are they over it or aren’t they” trap of hipsterdom.