Onegin: Canada’s hit musical takes on a life of its own

‘Onegin’ plays the Key City Theatre Tuesday, Feb. 6

Barry Coulter

Canada’s current top hit musical is making a stop in Cranbrook as part of a Western Canadian tour, and marking a few milestones at the same time.

“Onegin,” created by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille and presented by the Vancouver Arts Club, plays the Key City Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

“Onegin” (pronounced On-Yay-Ghin) is a new take on the classic Russian story, from the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin through the ballet by Tchaikovsky.

The swashbuckling Evgeni Onegin moves to a country estate he has inherited, but his romantic charms stir passions long forgotten by its residents. Poet Vladimir Lensky is incensed after Onegin flirts with his fiancée Olga, and challenges Onegin to a duel. And that’s only the first act!

The Townsman reached the play’s co-director and co-creator Amiel Gladstone, to ask how does it feels to have taken such a legendary story, put a new spin on it, and see it become a hit?

“It’s that weird elusive thing in Canadian theatre where a show is having a really long beautiful life — it feels really special,” Gladstone said. “But I’m also grateful that it’s come at this stage of my career. I’m 45, so I’ve been around a bit and I know the specialness and uniqueness of it, so I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Gladstone was inspired to launch to project after a stint with Vancouver Opera, training ‘mid-career’ directors in directing for opera.

“As part of that program I was the assistant director on a production of ‘Eugene Onegin’ — the Tchaikovsky ballet. I had a lot of time to sit there to watch and soak it in and see that even though this piece was set in the early 19th century, nothing had really changed in terms of how we interact, how we love, how we still love the bad boy. Those sort of ideas were very prevalent back then and still are today.”

The play’s story can be summed up very simply. But as with all things Russian, there are immense depths to be explored with that storyline.

“There’s an amazing simplicity to it,” Gladstone said. “But the depth comes from the various sides of the story, whether it’s falling in love, or falling in love with the wrong person, or not being ready for something. There seems to be so many ways to look at it that we can all see ourselves in it.

“There’s also a mix of young love, teenaged passion, and later we also see a more stable kind of love, a longer lasting kind of love.

“There’s a Russian quality to it, but there’s a real sense of fun and joy that we want to have a good time with the audience.”

As a director, it must be a real thrill to incorporate a duel into the piece.

“When we were writing the adaptation, we realized that the modern audience doesn’t necessarily know all the rules for dueling,” Gladstone said. “So we specifically wrote a song called ‘Rules for Duels’ that explains them.”

The Townsman has elected not to reveal whether the duel will be fought with swords or pistols.

“Onegin” seeks to set itself apart in musical terms as well. Gladstone and Hille collaborated on the music and lyrics, and arrived at something unique.

“It started that I would send [Veda Hille] ideas for snatches of songs, and some things that I thought were ideas for lyrics,” Gladstone said. “And then she would run them through the Veda Hille genius machine and come back with a more fully formed song. And then as we went along we reached a point where we were writing together around a piano.

“It became a true collaboration. We really feel we’ve both written it, and we both fill in the gaps about how to write a big musical. We both have separate things we bring myself.”

Gladstone says the music defies a neat categorization.

“We’ve tried to figure out how to label it. The influences are all over the place, from little bits of Tchaikovsky to Indie Folk, to drum beats like [rapper and songwriter] Kendrick Lamar. Sometimes we’ve asked ourselves ‘what would Kanye do?’ So it does kind of run the gamut. It has its own sound. The band is piano, keyboard, cello, drums and guitars. And the cast fills in every now and then on electric guitars and bells.”

After its hit run in Vancouver, Gladstone has seen the creation take on a life of its own.

“I’m always amazed at how it all comes together, when everyone’s up there playing and singing their hearts out. Many of the cast have performed this show over 100 times now, so there is a real feeling that it is a separate thing from us, and that it’s living on, and people are going to and once they see it once they want to see it again.

“It’s really a testament to collaboration,” Gladstone added. “Veda and I couldn’t have done this on our own, we couldn’t have performed it on our own — it is greater than the sum of its parts. It amounts to something bigger and more beautiful than any of us could have individually come up with.”

The Cranbrook show, Tuesday, Feb. 6, is marking a new milestone — the first date with the new cast.

“The amazing thing about the Cranbrook show is that we shifting up a bit, and some of our first cast are moving on, and we’ve got a new round of folks.”

Gladstone said some of the original cast are staying on, in different roles, and some are coming in from other shows to continue with tour.

The highly anticipated premiere of “Onegin” in Cranbrook plays the Key City Theatre Tuesday, Feb. 6. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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