GBS's "Onegin": When Pushkin Comes to Shove

The Cast of "Onegin"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

It's always exciting to hear that a regional company is presenting the local premiere of a play or opera or musical, and so it was when Greater Boston Stage announced its production of Onegin, (based on the early nineteenth century poem by Alexander Pushkin and as well as Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin). Their current mounting of the work is in fact not just an area but also U.S. Premiere, previously produced in 2016 in Vancouver, Canada. It was all the more disappointing to discover that this creation (not a poetic play nor opera, but in fact a musical comedy) should never have been given a visa, as it is more of an undocumented minor work by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille. Their stated aim was “to celebrate love”, and as the regrettable lyrics from one of their songs put it, “to please...to charm...to break you open”. Where Pushkin utilized poetic powers, this is more of an in-your face experience, totally lacking in subtlety or nuance. And, you might well ask, a musical comedy about a duel?
As in the familiar works that are its sources, this is the story of the “bookish” Tatyana Larin (Sarah Pothier) who falls for Evgeni Onegin (Mark Linehan), a man not ready for commitment. Her mother Mme. Larin (Kerry A. Dowling) is happy with her other daughter Olga Larin (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) in her relationship with her fiancee Vladimir Lensky (Michael Jennings Mahoney), but when Onegin flirts shamelessly with Olga in front of Lensky, it leads to the famous duel and death, with Prince Gremin (Peter Adams) and Triquet (Christopher Chew) in supporting roles. Though there are some vocal demands outside the range of some of the cast, they seem to be having a fine time, even engaging (far too often and jarringly) with some audience members on stage. As very broadly Directed by Weylin Symes and Choreographed in music hall mode by Ilyse Robbins, with able Music Direction by Steve Bass (frequently on two keyboards at once), apt Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Costume Design by Deirdre Gerrard and Sound Design by John Stone, the technical elements (especially the Scenic Design by Katheryn Monthei) are what one has come to expect from this company. The cast is uniformly better than the material, with one glaring exception, to go nameless here, who Chews the scenery to a fare-thee-well, in a offensively swishy take that really borders on homophobia. Then again, Tatyana gets to express worthy feminist aims with her ferocious declaiming “I am not finished!”. So the politics of this piece are a bit muddled.

As Stephen Sondheim once put it, “the choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not”;
Greater Boston Stage should be applauded and supported for its risk-taking options. It's the unremarkable score, notably in such lyrics as the oft-repeated “I will die, I will die, as we all must die”, that inevitably sink this promising voyage. At several points the libretto asks the question: “look around, look around, look around, do you see someone worth dying for?”; since none of the characters are given any depth, the answer to that would be decidedly in the negative. Elsewhere, the lyrics to another one of their songs (indistinguishable from one another save for musicianship in the solo “Let Me Die” and some brief homages to Tchaikovsky) pray: “oh dear father up in heaven, release us from boredom”. Too late.

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